While our behavior is clearly influenced by our surroundings – most of us act differently in a church vs. a nightclub – new research shows that very subtle differences can have a significant behavioral impact. Specifically, new research shows that environments with “disorder” cues cause people to be less likely to conform to social norms.

Decades ago, the “broken window” theory was proposed. It was based on an observation of old industrial buildings: if a broken window wasn’t repaired promptly, that unfixed window seemed to be an invitation for miscreants to break the rest of the windows. This theory was the basis for Rudy Giuliani’s successful effort to cut crime in New York City that began with cracking down on minor violations, like subway turnstile-jumping and harrassment of drivers by “squeegee men.” The broken window theory had been questioned by some, as it was more anecdotal than research based. Now, new research provides evidence that broken windows are just one example of how behavior is affected by the degree of disorder in our surroundings:

Last month social scientists in the Netherlands empirically demonstrated a phenomenon observed by policymakers and law-enforcement officials for years. When an envelope visibly containing a five-euro note was left hanging out of a mailbox on a sidewalk, 13 percent of the passersby snatched it up. When the same mailbox was covered in graffiti, however, more than double the number of the pedestrians (about 27 percent) stole the envelope.

Graffiti was not the only misdemeanor that fostered a cavalier attitude toward theft. When the ground near the mailbox was covered in litter, 25 percent of the subjects stole the envelope. These results are significant for both social and statistical reasons. Is a disorderly environment responsible for disorderly conduct? [From Seed - Chaos Begets Chaos by Sheila Prakash.]

An even more startling result occurred when the researchers tested compliance with a sign that asked pedestrians not to walk through a gate or chain a bicycle to the fence. A 27% of the people observed by the researchers ignored the sign and walked through anyway. When they chained a bicycle to the fence, though, this number more than tripled, to 82%! Clearly, once they observed the sign being ignored (even by an unrelated offense), the vast majority of pedestrians chose to ignore it too.

While these findings may have great value for city administrators and law enforcement units, what are their neuromarketing implications?

Retail. Since retail environments allow marketers a good degree of control over the surroundings, they are an obvious place to start applying this new research data. It seems likely that casual or opportunistic shoplifting would likely be reduced by maintaining a high degree of order (say, neat racks of apparel ordered by size vs. a messy dump bin) would be a subconscious stimulus that would discourage theft. (As a shopper myself, I’d add that well-organized merchandise would likely increase sales in most cases. On many occasions, I’ve skipped looking for an apparel item in my size to avoid rooting through dozens of disorganized sizes and styles.)

I’m sure there are other marketing applications for this fascinating new knowledge – what are your thoughts?

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