Sometimes academic research disproves old adages and clichés, but not often. A new study shows that first impressions, and how an individual or object is perceived, influence future behavior and cooperation.
When the first impression is negative, the expectation is particularly difficult to overcome, said researcher Michael Kurschilgen.
Kurschilgen and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) examined the results of so-called public good games.
In this application, one’s own expectation thereby becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who expect people to act selfishly actually experience uncooperative behavior from others more often.
In previous studies, other researchers had successfully put participants in Bonn and London into a social dilemma with such games, which are very popular in experimental economics. In the new study, the reseaarchers used the format as a template to study an important issue on urban planning.
“We wanted to find out whether the ‘broken windows’ theory held true in the lab as well,” Kurschilgen said.
According to this theory, minor details, like broken windows in abandoned buildings or rubbish on the streets, can lead to broader neglect and rising crime. The theory was the motivation behind New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to embark on the zero-tolerance strategy he employed to clean up the city in the 1990s.
“Such signs of neglect give people the impression that social standards do not apply there,” said Kurschilgen. In their study, the three MPI scientists tested the theory in a scientific experiment.
Using the kind of public good games that are often applied in the field of experimental economics, their aim was to find out the extent to which first impressions determine how people will behave, and the extent to which this can be influenced by selective information.
“The public good game thus creates a social dilemma,” Kurschilgen said.
That’s because it would be best for the community if everybody invested in the collective. However, on an individual level the free rider gets the best of the deal. They ultimately receive the bonus without having made the investment.
Consequently, whether a person decides to behave cooperatively or not depends strongly on how that person thinks the other players will behave.
“Our findings demonstrate that the core of the ‘broken windows’ theory does actually hold true.
“Faced with a social dilemma, people are guided to a very great extent by their original expectations of what other people will do, but they are also particularly sensitive to negative impressions,” Kurschilgen said.
Given this conclusion, it is clear to him that every cent spent on maintaining residential districts does more than just make the neighbourhood look prettier – it also represents a sound investment against crime.
Source: Max Planck Institute