Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Litter as a Cue To Who We Are

I was pleased to see an op-ed in the New York Times last Sunday authored by Dr. Adam Alter, a psychologist, researcher and professor of marketing at at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

The op-ed, entitled Where We Are Shapes Who We Are, is only a taste of his relatively new book which I read last spring entitled Drunk Tank Pink – And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.

We know from other studies that only 4% of Americans are intentionally litterers while 17% just dispose of their trash improperly.  One of the many research findings Alter summarizes in his book was when researchers studied how many drivers discarded windshield flyers improperly.

When the parking lot was pristine, only one in ten tossed the flyers on the ground, when the lot was already littered, half of the drivers improperly disposed of the flyers by tossing them on the ground as litter.

“The researchers then asked a “stooge” to conspicuously drop an unwanted flyer on the ground” just as other drivers came to their cars.  If the stooge highlighted how neat the lot was before discarding a flyer, only 6% followed suit.  If the stooge noted how cluttered the lot already was, 54% did.

Alter’s fascinating book is about a number of cues that influence our behavior, pre-existing litter being just one example.  But it made me wonder how local government agencies came to dupe themselves into swapping places with volunteers when it comes to litter removal.

It ranks right up there with the crazy notion that those with mental health problems could be dumped out onto city streets based on the now well-proven fallacy that they would all take crucial medications as out-patients.

The cost to society - not to mention families -  has been many times greater than the cost of alternatives this was meant to save.

At one time, the paradigm was that public agencies would be funded to aggressively maintain the cleanliness of roadsides and water ways, supplemented episodically by volunteers.

Then to save a few dollars, this was reversed and community’s such as Durham, NC where I live largely abandoned clean-up to volunteers while agencies were funded only enough to barely fill in on occasion during the year.

The result has been a disaster illustrated by a stretch of freeway here where McDonalds often advertises on a billboard, (aka litter on a stick) near one of its outlets, whose customers then litter this stretch of highway with litter from their meal.

The solution, according to studies, is a zero-tolerance for litter.  For those who role their eyes because society has much more important things to worry about, consider for a moment all of the things to which litter is a cue or link:

  • public health issues
  • increased racism/intolerance
  • increased crime
  • suppressed property values and tax base
  • inhibited philanthropy
  • soil and water contamination
  • increased infrastructure costs

There are more.  Still think litter reduction is light weight or something scalable for only volunteers?

Rarely do litterers view themselves as litterers.  As Alter makes clear with numerous cues in his book, studies about things such as litter “tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of ‘you’.”

Our “norms change from minute to minute…It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us, that good people are good, bad people are bad, and that those tendencies reside within us.”

In many ways I am not the person I was as a child or at various other times in my life.  My political views aren’t the only values that have evolved over time, swinging from conservative to liberal before settling at the moderate center.

As conveyed by memoirs sprinkled on occasion through this blog, memories, according to Dr. Alter, are “the building blocks that construct the evolving story of who we are across time….[they] are tagged with the locations where they are formed.”

Often they are contextual.  A disposition to historical analysis has given me the ability to revisit the historical memories of my ancestors and to place them in context.  It is also a means I use to evaluate current events and to discern the motives of others without telling myself too much of a story.

As Alter explains in Drunk Tank Pink, now a best-seller, sometimes illusions are cultural, “legacies” that “influence how we perceive people and social interactions.”

This may explain why in retirement both Tea Party groups and liberal groups have me on their mailings lists to enlist contributions.  I provide enough information in this blog for each end of the spectrum to attempt fundraising, even though I am an Independent moderate with leanings that vary depending on the topic.

Even before I began to publish this blog in mid-2005, people often pegged me as conservative or liberal based on the context in which they met me. Business-types often judged me conservative and neighborhood types as liberal.

You can also be judged by a context you find yourself in.

I remember in the 1980s when those prone to suddenly start telling racist, sexist or misanthropic jokes felt more free to do so.  I learned quickly to signal or voice my displeasure or risk escalation.

Litter is only part of one of the nine cues that Alter reviews in his book, which I highly recommend to anyone but especially those still involved in community-destination marketing.

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