Researchers Trashed NYC to See What People Would Do

Guess how many New Yorkers called them out for littering.

by Corey Levitan
Dec 7 2016, 6:00pm

Photo: Kaarsten/Getty Images

New Yorkers get a bad rap for being indifferent. Remember the 38 natives who wouldn't intervene in Kitty Genovese's murder 50 years ago, even enough to call the police? Wasn't true—the  New York Times recently admitted to misreporting that story (only a few people witnessed anything, two of whom called the police). Maybe we're more responsible than people give us credit for. 

Earlier this year, Swiss sociologists Joel Berger and Debra Hevenstone gave us another chance to prove ourselves in this department. And not even with something we'd have to risk our lives over. 

The researchers took turns in front of New York subway commuters exiting the station. One tossed an empty bottle near, but not in, a garbage can and then ignored it while the other observed the response. Previous lab experiments have shown that people are willing to step forward and enforce social norms on offenders despite the social risks. But retribution simply for the good of society, called "altruistic punishment," has rarely been tested in the real world. 

So how'd they do? 

As published in the journal Rationality and Society, New Yorkers demonstrated a lower response than in lab experiments, implying probably that people are more altruistic when they know they're being studied. But the response was higher than you might have guessed. Fully a third of the missed-bottle throws received reactions—usually disapproving grumbles. Meanwhile, 4 percent of the volunteers actually picked the bottle up themselves—more when the area around the trashcan was pristine, fewer when ratty-looking trash bags were arranged around it. 

Not so bad, right? Or so it seemed. Then the researchers had to spoil everything by replicating the experiment at home in Bern, Switzerland. There, nearly half the attempts at littering were met with a response: 25 percent of people grumbled, 10 percent challenged the offender (usually demanding that he or she pick up their garbage), and 13 percent actually tidied up—meaning they put the bottles in the trash themselves. (Nobody in New York did that.) In fact, the researchers couldn't even do their ratty-bag experiment effectively because the damn Swiss kept conscientiously removing the bags.

The research showed that some norms are universally enforced, although less so than in standard lab experiments. It also showed that people prefer subtle forms of reinforcement (grumbling) to direct involvement, and that enforcement is greater in clean environments vs. dirty ones.

But its most significant finding, at least to New Yorkers, is that the Swiss are more likely to confront a litterer than they are.

All of which is to say: While it may be true that New Yorkers are more reluctant to confront strangers than people in the rest of the world, it's also got to be true that the Swiss have much more free time.