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Litter and It’s Link to Behaviour- Social Signalling

The Power of Litter on Social Signalling

I’m one of those bores that is obsessed with litter, and social signalling I always have been. As a teen, I would chastise my friends who dropped litter on the floor and even now often a walk around the park takes me too long as I stop to pick up every piece of rubbish I see. If I see someone drop litter I want to run in front of them with a bell shouting “unclean” and as a police officer, I often exasperated my colleagues with my insistence on reporting every litter thrower I came across.

It’s not because I’m obsessively clean, I’ m not. It’s not that I have a big thing for the environment; I care but this isn’t my issue with litter. My issue with litter is the message it gives out about the place we live in.

a rubbish filled street in a post talkign about social signalling

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash


Litter send a message it’s called social signalling.

The other day my husband, by accident put a bag of my old clothes for recycling out with the rubbish. I came home to see said bag tipped out, contents spilling out in front of my house. I cursed a little, cleaned it up and couldn’t help but wonder if the same rubbish men would have reacted in a similar fashion had that bag been out in front of a large home with manicured lawns and big metal gates; probably not. I live in a town centre and the quality of this neighbourhood has gone down since most of the houses got rented and transient residents moved in, such as students. The neighbourhood has become more difficult to live in, as petty crime rises, drunken parties spill out onto the streets and yes you guessed it, more litter appears on the street. I’ll move soon but at the moment the convenience of the location outweighs my litter dilemmas.


But all this litter talk brings up an often-overlooked area that affects our identity, how we see ourselves and consequently how we might behave. The environment is a key part of my behavioural framework and something that is never really touched upon when talking about behavioural change, yet it can have a huge impact. Research shows that for those who are brought up in loving homes with loving parents the environment has little of no effect on their behaviour, but for those who don’t have this, the environment has an exponential impact.

When I was a police officer I spent many hours in the homes of young offenders and while some lived in beautiful surroundings, most lived in cluttered, chaotic, uninspiring situations. I would often spend time in school working with young people, talking about ways they could make the environments they lived in less vulnerable to crime, which often included improving the physical attractiveness of their immediate environment. You would be surprised what a huge pot of flowers and greenery can do to an otherwise neglected space.


Because even before I knew there was something called environmental psychology, I knew that for young people whose backgrounds were not great the environments were more important than ever. Why? Because the environment is where we pick up the social signals of how to behave and what is and is not acceptable in any given area. It’s called social signalling. Social signalling is picked up from the social norm in a particular group or area and they play a significant role in determining behaviour. Humans constantly monitor other humans and their environment to pick up clues of the acceptable behaviour or norms in any given situation. When there are few people around giving guidance, people are forced to look at their environment for signals and behave accordingly.


So the rubbish man who picks up the accidental recycling and doesn’t know what to do, looks around and sees litter and a generally unkempt area, concludes that this is a neighbourhood that doesn’t really care and so dumps the rubbish. Had he been outside the mansion with a gate and manicured lawn the signals would have been different; he may have thought he would get into trouble; that people were more likely to complain so he would be more likely to put the contents back in the bag.

This is why litter matters; left unchecked it gives out the message that no one really cares and this is an area where you can get away with low-level crime. And that is why I pick up every bit of litter I see and shout “Unclean!” to people who drop it! I know this matters, as does all other low-level crime such or graffiti, urinating against walls, general disruption, stuff that is often overlooked because people believe we should focus on the bigger things.


It’s a theory that has become known as the broken window theory.

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes. The theory thus suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes.

The theory was introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.[1] It was further popularized in the 1990s by New York City police commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose policing policies were influenced by the theory.

Our environment can shape what we feel is the appropriate behaviour in any given situation; we only have to think of how we might behave in a millionaires mansion carpeted in white verses our own comfy home to know this is true. If the environment we live in constantly gives us negative signals this can lead us to having a negative view of ourselves.” If no one cares enough to pick up the litter here, how can they care about the people?”


  • Take Risks
  • Learn
  • Be productive
  • Reach Potential
  • Have better relationships.
  • Be their very best

So it goes to say when they are not, the opposite is probably true.


This is why I spent so long in the police working with young offenders and young people at risk of offending to understand their environment, because although they might not be able to change it, understanding its impact on how you feel about yourself and how it makes you behave is an invaluable piece of information. Knowing that changing your environment even just a little may make you feel a little bit better is knowledge worth having. And acknowledging the impact that the environment can have is vital for anyone attempting to change a young person behaviour.

Oh, and if you are reading this and work for Northampton Borough Council, I have a bone to pick with you about your rubbish men!

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