Thirty-four years ago, criminologists came up with the "broken windows" theory that cities with homes in visual disrepair encourage more crime. The research at the time relied more on a concept than concrete evidence, but a new paper by University of Chicago scientists was able to define why some environments may encourage poor behavior.

Researchers exposed participants to photos of environments that were in varying degree of order and disarray, without telling the participants which were which. Those who identified seeing more disarray images, clarified by rough edges, overgrown shrubbery, broken windows, were 35% more likely to cheat on an exam afterward.

The work may also suggest that planners and architects might start thinking more closely about the psychological effects of the spaces they design—especially insofar as it relates to the potential for crime. (Some builders, intentionally and otherwise, are already exploring the coercive character of “unpleasant design,” such as the sloping “Camden bench” that deflects homeless sleepers.) More research is needed, of course. The researchers want to try out other scenarios that test different forms of rule-breaking, such as littering, and look more closely at how people define disorder in both natural and urban environments.

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