6 Jul 2009

Suffer the little things

I always write about my observations that Trinidadians and Tobagonians (Monkey Islanders according to my co-author) have little regard for basic rules, regulations and the law.

It’s enough to frustrate any sane person, because as often pointed out by myself and others, these are the same people who travel abroad and queue for buses, the cinema, etc; pick up their litter, speak politely at the hospitals and doctors’ offices, etc.

If they have to work abroad, they forget ‘Trinidadian’ time, they forget poor customer service, and they behave as the natives do (in the majority).

Now, why am I mentioning this? Well, I’ve been trying to rationalise why on earth this behaviour can’t happen in Trinidad & Tobago. One explanation is the broken window theory. Basically, this says that if you fix the little things, big things won’t develop as much.

This has critics as well as supporters. But today I read an article that seems to support it.

Imagine you park your bike in a bike shed. A sign says: no graffiti. On your return, you find a leaflet stuck to the handlebars. What do you do with it? Chuck it in the street, or bin it elsewhere?

That depends, says Ramsey Raafat from University College London, who describes a set of curious experiments in Holland.

"When the riders or owners returned to their bike, 33% of the people chucked the flyer, littered, broke a norm.

"But when there was a slight manipulation, everything's the same - we have our bike shed, bikes, prominent 'no graffiti' sign - but now there's graffiti in the area, so a norm has been violated. Now interestingly in this situation, a whopping 69% of the riders when they returned chucked the flyer. And so in this instance when one norm's violated - the graffiti violation - there's a massive effect on another norm of littering."

Is that a surprise? We've always known that behaviour is sometimes easily influenced. How else, you might have found occasion to ask, does the nice lad from the nice family next door become a lout in a mob, lurching, swearing, singing offensively down the road? Because his frame of moral reference temporarily stops at those around him. He sees no-one else.

For a final, bizarre illustration of where our immediate social influences may lead us, Ramsey Raafat cites another experiment in group-think.

"Now stealing - if one was to steal, that's a powerful norm violation. We learn at a very early age not to steal. So how do they do this? This is very elegant. They had a post-box and sticking out of it was an envelope with a five-euro note attached. Now in the control condition - no litter and no graffiti - only 13% of people stole, took the envelope.

"However when there was graffiti or litter surrounding the post-box, a whopping 25% or 27% of people stole. That's more than a doubling of norm violation. And, again, it's a powerful effect of how when one norm is broken, we become more likely to break another, or essentially the spreading of disorder."

Indeed, this is not farfetched. We see dotish people (including prisoner transport personnel) breaking the road traffic laws everyday. From ‘breaking’ red lights, driving on the PBR, on the shoulder… you name it, it happens with impunity.

Of course, then there is a major problem with the dunceys… they don’t care to implement the laws so little things can’t get fixed. People litter, spit, pee, etc. Drive like idiots. Steal, commit petty larceny and graduate to bigger criminal enterprises. Once upon a time, the only ‘gangs’ were pan men. Now? No further explanation needed.

Yes indeed, it is only when we suffer the little things that bigger indignities are heaped upon our heads.