“The Spreading of Disorder” – or: Impunity Creates More Violations of the Law – Sunday,23.11.2008

Posted on 23 November 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 587 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 587

Three Dutch Behavior and Social Science scientists made a number of revealing experiments. They are described as follows:

“ A thesis known as the ‘Broken Windows Theory’ suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behavior trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behavior, thus causing the behavior to spread. This may cause neighborhoods to decay and the quality of life of its inhabitants to deteriorate. For a city government this may be a vital policy issue. But does disorder really spread in neighborhoods? So far there has not been strong empirical support, and it is not clear what constitutes ‘disorder’ and what may make it spread. In this article, we generate hypotheses about the spread of disorder and test them… We found that when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate even other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread.”

Note: Reference to the study “The Spreading of Disorder” is published here in Science Magazine. Another version in German “Unordnung ist eine Seuche” is here.

The results are frightening:

“When people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate even other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread.”

This is no longer just an opinion – it has been proven in some experiments with people who did not know that they were observed. We report about two of their six experiments.

In a shopping area – in Holland, in a place where people park their bicycles – a big sign was placed on a wall, where everybody coming in had to see it, saying “No writing on this wall!” – The experiment was carried out on two days: on one day, the wall was dirty, people had scribbled or drawn something on the wall; on the other day, the wall had been freshly painted during the night. All experiments were conducted at the same hours of the day, and both under similar weather conditions.

On both days, 77 people each were observed, coming to take back their bicycles. But while they were away, the social scientists had attached a paper flyer to each bicycle, saying: “We wish everybody happy holidays!” – and the name of a non-existing shop was printed on the paper flyer, which was so big that it had to be removed before walking and driving away. On the day when the wall was white and clean, one third of the cyclists threw the paper flyers on the ground, but two thirds took them away without littering; – but on the day when the wall was dirty, about two thirds threw the papers away,

Not only experiments about cleanliness and orderliness were made – also about stealing.

A partly transparent envelope of a letter with a 5-Euro bill – a value of over six dollars – was placed hanging half way out of a letter box, well visible for every passer-by. Then 71 people each, walking by alone, were observed. On one day, the letter box and its surroundings were clean; on another day, some things had been written on the mailbox making it dirty and disorderly, and there was trash on the ground around letter box: pieces of paper, orange peels, cigarette butts, and empty cans. – As long as everything was clean, only one person in eight stole the money; but on the day when the environment was made disorderly and unclean, one person in four stole the money.

What might be the lessons to be learned from these studies in the Netherlands?

  • Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng is reported to have criticized the Economic Police – he hardly hears about achievements, but rather complaints against them.
  • The Senate is reported to start to investigate corruption in the judicial system.
  • The World Bank encourages the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction to investigate corruption of land management officials.

Was anybody punished? Some of these problems have a longer history already.

According to the experiments quoted above, when the context is in disarray, other people are drawn into it also. When there is big corruption going on, others will be drawn in.

Such a case is the poor mother, who is jailed for pick-pocketing during the Water Festival. We have these reports about how justice is administered:

  • “If Our Mom Is Jailed, We Will Go to Jail Too, Because We Have Only One Mother” [said three small girls, aged between four to nine years old, standing in front of the Daun Penh Police Station, waiting for their mother, who is jailed for allegedly pick-pocketing during the Water Festival]
  • Four Small Daughters [including a new born baby] Live Alone while Their Mother Is Jailed [at the Prey Sar Prison for pick-pocketing during the Water Festival]

This cannot be an example of the reformed justice system, which is talked about in so many reform programs.

According to the Dutch experiments, things go wrong when the environment is negative and when there is no authority in front of which to be responsible.

The Cambodian Constitution is clear about how to achieve the goal of a just society, according to the law:

Article 51:
…All power belongs to the people. The people exercise these powers through the National Assembly, the Senate, the Royal Government and the Judiciary.
The legislative, executive, and judicial powers shall be separate.

Article 130:
Judicial power shall not be granted to the legislative or executive branches.

As long as this principle is violated, as long as some people are protected under special powers and not under the law – like members of the economic police, some members of the judicial system suspected of corruption, some corrupt land management officials – and the judiciary cannot guarantee and uphold impartiality in law enforcement, things will continue to go like in the Dutch experiments: as long as nobody looks to intervene, many will use the opportunity to act irresponsibly and to grab what they can.

The Constitution provides also an outlook of hope, in case things go wrong:

Article 8:
The King shall be … the protector of rights and freedom for all citizens…

The King asked, during this week, the Minister of Justice to solve the problem of the detention of a journalist in Kompong Thom, arrested for performing her legal and professional duties, covering the activities of the executive.

So there is again some hope.


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