Title: Visual Disorder Encourages Rule-Breaking
Authors: Hiroki P. Kotabe, Omid Kardan, and Marc G. Berman
Abstract (50 words or less): Disorderly environments are linked to disorderly behaviors. To explain this, broken windows theory, an influential theory of criminal behavior, assumes that reasoning about social cues is necessary. This study shows that social cues are unnecessary. Results show that basic visual disorder alone is sufficient to encourage rule-breaking.
Supporting Summary (500 words or less): In this work, we question previous theories of rule-breaking behavior (in particular, broken windows theory). Broken windows theory has been a highly influential theory in sociology and criminology. It assumes that social cues (e.g., litter, graffiti, an abandoned building) lead people to reason that they can get away with bad behavior (e.g., littering more, spraying more graffiti, breaking a window) because policing is low or misconduct is the norm. The problem is that such social cues are often visually disordered at a low-level (e.g., a broken window contains more disorderly edges and lines), thereby confounding visual disorder and social disorder. As such, broken windows theory attributes the whole effect to social cues and reasoning about them, when low-level visual disorder may play an important role. Here we ask an important and, before now, untested question; is basic visual disorder alone sufficient to encourage bad behavior? To answer this question, we used experimental methods to deconstruct and define visual disorder. We find that spatial features such as non-straight edges and asymmetry matter more than color features for perceptions of disorder. We exploit this knowledge to manipulate visual disorder and test whether it encourages cheating.
To study cheating, we adapted a creative method to study cheating developed and validated by Mazar, Amir, and Ariely (2008). In this method, people take a math test (involves searching matrices for numbers that add to 10), then later grade themselves on the test. To tempt people to cheat, we tell them that they will be paid for every problem they indicate they answered correctly. In our version of the task, we had people view our visually disordered or visually ordered stimuli for five minutes just before grading themselves (30 visually disordered vs. 30 visually ordered stimuli for 10 seconds each). As predicted, people who viewed the visually disordered stimuli cheated more. On average, across three experiments using this method (N = 1,202), the visual disorder manipulation increased the likelihood of cheating by 26% of average and the amount of cheating by 42% on average. In one of these experiments (N = 405), when cheating incentives were high and visual disorder was made salient, the manipulation increased the likelihood of cheating by 35% and the amount of cheating by 87%. These two results point to two subtly different phenomena. First, the increased likelihood of cheating suggests that visual disorder encourages non-cheaters to become cheaters. Second, the increased amount of cheating suggests that visual disorder encourages cheaters to cheat more. This sort of cheating could have major economic and societal consequences. Imagine if the amount by which people underreported their taxes increased by just 1%—the IRS would lose out on billions of dollars.
We conclude that basic visual disorder is sufficient to encourage rule-breaking despite the absence of social cues. We suggest that explanations for rule-breaking that assume that reasoning about social cues is necessary, should be reconsidered.
Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research, 45, 633-644.
Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic monthly, 249, 29-38.