A guest post from Catherine Caldwell-Harris, aka the Traveling Psychologist:
I carried my laptop and canvas chair to my usual lookout spot atop the beautiful Chestnut Hill reservoir at Cleveland Circle and was startled to find I would not have the rocks and grass to myself: I would share then with silvery beer cans, cardboard beer boxes, and cigarette buts and Dunkin' Donut bags.
Of course -- it's kids. Kids come up after dark to smoke, drink and litter. The joggers who loop around the majestic reservoir 30 feet below are probably tree huggers who would pack in, pack out and carry plastic bags for dog pick-up.
What do you do when someone trashes your nature spot, readers? Take a snapshot and post it with an angry note? Start cleaning it up with an aggrieved air so that the joggers feel bad and stop to help? Stake out the spot in the next nights so you can give the drunken offenders a piece of your mind?
Why do people litter, anyway?
It turns out that people -- joggers, kids, hikers, homeless - don't litter just because they're lazy and don't care. My box-strewn spot is what social psychologist Robert Cialdini would have predicted based on the "before" picture. The past decades of late night reservoir viewing have left the lookup with broken glass and small detritus. In "Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment," Cialdini noted that people litter in an already littered environment, and they refrain from littering in a pristine environment. Littering happens when plastic bags, cans and broken glass inform us that this is a place where the normative -- usual, expected -- practice is to litter. A pristine environment sends the message that we would be socially out of step if we littered.
An example of people's sensitivity to social norms comes form an ingenious study conducted at Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, which was trying to keep visitors from taking fossilized wood from park paths. Large amounts of wood were being pocketed by visitors despite signs reading: "Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time." Despite these signs -- or because of?
Cialdini and colleagues reasoned that the signs were informing readers, "Lots of people steal wood (and so you may as well do what everyone else does)." Collaborating with park officials, they placed secretly marked pieces of petrified wood along the paths, and then varied the warning signs. When signs mentioned the number of others who had stolen wood, theft of the marked fossilized pieces were 5 times higher than when signs simply told visitors not to remove the petrified wood from the park.
According to these environmentally minded social psychologists, when we stoop down to pick up someone else's litter, we're doing a lot more than just cleaning up after a prior jerk or providing a service to the unknown next viewers on the scene: We're sending the message to future joggers, walkers, and drinkers that this is a litter-free place.
This research explains why smokers will not put their butts in a plastic bag and take them to a trash can until they see most other smokers doing this.
A further implication of the social psychology research is that when we see others actually cleaning up litter, then we take in the message that cleaning up litter is socially desirable. But Americans may not draw this conclusion, since altruistically cleaning up litter isn't frequently done - or is it? If you saw someone cleaning up litter would you think:
(a) "That is so cool, I guess I should clean up litter I see too."
(b) "It's good someone is actually picking up their own litter."
(c) "Park employees are finally doing their job."
(d) "That's a homeless/crazy person who has a hoarding disorder" (or: is looking for bottles with MA deposit, or: cigarette buts with a pinch of tobacco left).
The author is solely responsible for the content.