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Berman on the Brain: The Environment Made Me Do it

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We like to think that we are in complete conscious control of our behaviour, but as it turns out we may be kidding ourselves. Case in point: many of us think that advertising has no bearing on our behaviour until we find ourselves woofing down a fast-food chain hamburger that we were mysteriously craving. While humans do have an incredible capacity for self-control, much of our self-control burden lies in unconscious/implicit processes as pointed out in Bargh and Chartrand's seminal article "The Unbearable Automaticity of Being" in the American Psychologist. What this means is that while we think we are the captains of our own ship, our ship may actually be navigating itself, with us as passengers rather than captains.

Where does this leave us? Well, the fact that unconscious factors affect our behaviour is not an excuse for why we may behave badly. Rather, it's important to understand the circumstances that may lead to better or worse self-control performance. As it turns out, the physical environment impacts our self-control abilities in profound ways. In a very interesting study performed in the Netherlands, and published in the journal Science, researchers examined how likely pedestrians were to steal a five-dollar bill attached to a package in a public mailbox. It turns out that if the mailbox had graffiti on it passers-by were twice as likely to steal the money than if the mailbox had no graffiti on it. In another study performed in Lowell, Massachusetts, researchers found that cleaning up the physical environment was more effective at reducing crime than putting more police on the street. Both studies are consistent with the "broken windows theory" proposed by social scientists James Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982 in the Atlantic Monthly. The basic premise is that if the physical environment is clean or orderly, then people will behave in more orderly ways.

Recent experimental studies, such as the studies performed in the Netherlands and Lowell, Massachusetts, provide compelling support for the theory and should make us all more attuned to our physical surroundings and how they may impact our behaviour and that of others. The idea that a more orderly environment not only serves an aesthetic purpose, but a psychological, behavioural and societal purpose is certainly worthy of attention, particularly given that it does not require rocket science to achieve. My mom used to tell me: "Clean your room, a messy room is a messy mind." As it turns out, mom was on to something.

Bargh J.A., & Chartrand T.L. (1999). "The Unbearable Automaticity of Being." American Psychologist, 54(7): 462-479

Johnson, C.Y. (2009). "Breakthrough on 'Broken Windows,'" Boston Globe February 8, 2009
Keizer K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg L. (2008). "The Spreading of Disorder." Science, 322(5908): 1681-1685.

Wilson, J.Q., & Kelling, G.L. (1982) "Broken windows," Atlantic Monthly, p. 29

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