In their field experiments Keizer and his colleagues tested to what extent various subtle signs of disorder in an environment could influence the proliferation of other undesirable behaviors. In one study the researchers found the perfect setting for their test: an alleyway near a Dutch shopping mall where shoppers typically parked their bikes. While the shoppers were at the mall, the researchers affixed one of the store’s advertisements on the handlebar of each bicycle with an elastic band. In one condition, the researchers left the alleyway just as they found it; in a second condition, they added graffiti to the alleyway. Because there were no garbage bins in the area, shoppers returning from the mall to find a printed advertisement attached to the handlebars of their bicycle had a simple choice. Do they remove the advertisement and take it home with them—or do they instead drop it on the ground?
The results revealed that 33 percent of the bicycle owners littered the paper when there was no graffiti to be seen in the alleyway. However, 69 percent did so when graffiti was present.
Several studies have demonstrated that we are more likely to help those who dress like us. In one study, done in the early 1970s when young people tended to dress either in “hippie” or “straight” fashion, experimenters donned hippie or straight attire and asked college students on campus for a dime to make a phone call. When the experimenter was dressed in the same way as the student, the request was granted in more than two thirds of the instances; but when the student and requester were dissimilarly dressed, the dime was provided less than half the time. Another experiment shows how automatic our positive response to similar others can be. Marchers in an antiwar demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also to do so without bothering to read it first. Click, whirr.
Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.
To test this theory, a few years ago I ran a study in which two groups of people were asked to take part in an experiment in which they spent an afternoon picking up litter in a London park. Participants were told that they were taking part in an experiment examining how best to persuade people to look after their local parks. One group were paid handsomely for their time, while the others were only given a small amount of cash. After an hour or so of backbreaking and tedious work, everyone rated the degree to which they had enjoyed the afternoon. You might think that those clutching a large amount of well-earned cash would be more positive than those who had given their time for very little money.
In fact, the result was exactly the opposite. The average enjoyment rating of the handsomely paid group was a measly 2 out of 10, while the modestly paid group’s average ratings were a whopping 8.5. It seemed that those who had been paid well had thought, ‘Well, let me see, people usually pay me to do things I don’t enjoy. I was paid a large amount, so I must dislike tidying the park.’
One of the first experiments on the topic was run in the USA by Solomon Asch. He asked subjects to evaluate a person simply on the basis of a list of six adjectives describing him. They might be told that he was ‘intelligent, industrious, impulsive critic, stubborn and envious’. Other subjects were given exactly the same six words but in the opposite order, ‘envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious and intelligent’. All subjects were then I asked to fill in a rating sheet in order to evaluate the person. For example, they had to indicate how happy they thought he was, how sociable he was, and so on. The subjects who heard the first list, which began with favourable adjectives evaluated the person considerably more highly than did those given the list beginning with the derogatory words. This effect – being more heavily influenced by early than by late item – is called the ‘primacy error’.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland