Crime and Punishment: Two Reports

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Barbara Klein. This week, we tell about two recent studies by teams of social scientists. One study showed that signs of disorderly behavior and theft lead to additional acts of crime. The other study explored whether punishment leads to greater cooperation among groups and individuals.

Imagine that you live on a street where there are broken windows, graffiti painted on buildings and waste on the ground. Would this environment lead to other acts of property damage or crime?

European researchers say the answer is yes. The researchers say they found strong evidence that signs of disorder can lead individuals to carry out criminal acts or bad behavior. The researchers work at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  They reported their findings in Science magazine last November. Their report is called "The Spreading of Disorder."

The idea that observing disorder has an effect on people's behavior is not new. In nineteen eighty-two, American researchers James Wilson and George Kelling wrote a report describing what they called the broken windows theory. They believed that signs of crime, such as broken windows in a building, led to other acts of crime.

In the nineteen nineties, New York City officials started a campaign to remove signs of disorder like broken windows, graffiti markings and trash. Soon, the rate of minor crimes in New York began to drop. Other cities around the world also began to use this crime-fighting method.

But the broken windows theory was also disputed. Experts said there was still no experimental evidence to prove that the drop in crime was a direct result of efforts to clean up city neighborhoods.

They said other influences could have caused the drop in crime. Also, the broken windows theory did not fully investigate the exact conditions of disorders that appeared to lead to crime.

The study from the Netherlands now provides the experimental information to support the broken windows theory.

To carry out the experiment, a team led by Kees Keizer set up several situations in public areas to test people's behavior. One experiment took place in Groningen on a quiet street where people left their bicycles. The researchers left a piece of paper on the handlebars of the bicycles while their owners were away. They wanted to see under what conditions people would demonstrate the behavior of littering, or leaving the paper on the street.

When a wall near the bicycles was covered in graffiti, sixty nine percent of individuals left the paper in the street or on a nearby bicycle. But only thirty three percent of the individuals littered when the area lacked graffiti.

Other experiments tested how people acted when faced with rules set by police, rules set by a local business, and rules set by national law. In all situations, people were more likely to violate the rules when there were nearby signs of disorderly behavior than if there were no signs of disorder.

Researchers also carried out an experiment to test if signs of disorder that were heard had the same effect as signs that were seen. In the Netherlands, it is illegal to explode firecrackers in the weeks before New Year's Day. So, the researchers once again placed pieces of paper on several parked bicycles. When firecrackers were set off nearby, people picking up their bicycles were more likely to litter than when there was no firecracker noise. Eighty percent of people who heard the noise threw the paper on the ground. Without the fireworks, fifty two percent did so.

The researchers say their report holds important meaning for policy makers and crime enforcement workers. It proves that identifying and correcting small signs of disorder before they grow into bigger problems can be an important step in fighting the spread of crime.

You are listening to the VOA Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS. With Barbara Klein, I'm Bob Doughty in Washington.

Results of another study were published in Science magazine in December. The report was called "The Long-Run Benefits of Punishment." Economists at the University of Nottingham in Britain wanted to test whether the threat of punishment causes social groups to cooperate more fully.

Their question is part of a model used by experimental economists to explain social and individual behavior. When societies cooperate with the aim of creating a public good, there is always the possibility of a free-rider. A free-rider uses the public good without helping to create or support it. For example, many Americans believe the country's public television service is a kind of public good. People donate money to help support public television and its programming. A free-rider might refuse to donate money but still enjoys watching the programs.

The University of Nottingham study examined whether the possibility of punishing free-riders leads to better group results. The study was carried out with the help of about two hundred volunteers. They used computers at the university to carry out the experiment. The volunteers sat in such a way that they could not see one another's computer screens. They also were not permitted to speak to one another.

Groups of three people were given twenty tokens in the computer program. Each token represented an amount of money. An individual could keep the object or donate it as part of a group project. If the person kept the token, it was worth one unit of money. If a person donated the token to a group project, the token was worth half of that amount to each person in the group.

In half of the groups, a person could chose to punish another individual who did not donate to the public project. Punishment cost the punisher one unit of money. The person being punished had his or her money reduced by three units.

For the other groups, there was no way to punish people who did not cooperate on the public project. The results showed that if punishment was possible, the group cooperated better on the public project and donated more money towards its goal.

The groups were asked to play this game either ten times or fifty times. The two time periods tested whether people were more likely to act differently in the short term than in the long term. The results suggested that people do act differently if they think they are working with a group for a short period of time instead of a long period.

Simon Gaechter was one of the researchers for this project. He says his team's research is influenced by questions in evolutionary biology about why people and groups use costly punishment. Some studies suggest that punishment can be too costly to be useful. But Professor Gaechter says his team's theory was that punishment has only low costs because it needs to be used rarely and works as a threat. And, the experiment proved the theory.

The professor gave an example of his team's experiment. Standing in line is a form of social cooperation. Everyone must wait in line when, for example, waiting to mail a package or letter at the post office. Each individual has a reason to want to jump ahead in line to avoid the cost of waiting. But usually people do not cut ahead in line, even if the other people in line are strangers and may never be seen again.

One reason for not cheating is that a person might fear being criticized in public for cutting in line. Professor Gaechter says social order in general can be explained as a system in which individuals behave cooperatively and follow social rules. This is because of the threat of punishment. Punishment can include social criticism, and police or legal enforcement.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Dana Demange. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. We would like to hear from you. Write to us at Special English, Voice of America, Washington, D.C., two-zero-two-three-seven, U.S.A. Or send your e-mails to [email protected] Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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