Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Play with your colleagues, and write a paper about your experience

Who has not dreamed of playing a crank on one's colleagues? And then get a paper out of it? This paper is not quite about a crank, it is about an experiment that João Ramos and Benno Torgler played on their colleagues. Many departments have a common room for people to get coffee, chat and hang out. Ramos and Torgler used their common room at Queensland University of Technology to play a game unbeknown to their colleagues, namely test the Broken Window Theory.

The theory states that if a building has a broken window, it will soon have more broken windows, because the first one signals neglect and thus breaking a window has no consequences. The particular experiment is interesting because participants were unaware they were being observed. It went as follows: usually the common room is cleaned every morning, with all dishes washed in a dishwasher. It is expected from everyone to put dirty dishes in the dishwasher. The experiment is to put a controlled number of dirty dishes in the sink and mess up further the place with newspapers and sugar packs.

In the tidy common room, 18% of users littered, defined by not putting their dishes in the dish washer. With the messed up common room, 59% littered. Older faculty tend to litter more, surprisingly, and there is less littering when more people are present (peer effects) and on Mondays (habit from not littering at home over the week-end).

Oh, how I wish I had the idea of hanging out in the common room for a full month and get a paper out of it...

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