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The Psychology of Littering
A dirty city present the image of neglect – by the authorities and citizens, both. It also reflects the mood and attitude of the people residing in it. Most psychologists concur that public habits and attitudes are fomented by what many call the ‘broken window’ theory. This theory states that if there is one broken window in a locality and it is not repaired, the subtle message that is sent out is that it is acceptable. This makes people comfortable with the idea and they proactively go ahead and ‘break windows’ just for fun. If a neighbourhood shows signs of deterioration and no one seems to care, then it actually encourages such behaviour. An open-air dirty bin or garbage dump is simply a sign of carelessness and a chalta-hai attitude. People react to it by thinking that it’s okay to throw garbage since it is already there.

Some experiments

Psychological test results, conducted at various points of time, reportedly suggest that everyday reminders of cleanliness may have unintended effects on people’s attitudes. In a test carried out by a foreign institution, simply keeping hand sanitizers on washroom counters resulted in people not throwing litter around and actually cleaning their hands and not by another control experiment where there were admonishments posted and pasted on the walls.

Should the people who see this littering happening daily and do not react not be held responsible, too? And what about the cleaners who shirk their job and do not empty the bins?

Bringing to notice

All of these aspects have to be kept in mind while preparing an educative plan for a cleaner city. Some people throw rubbish wherever they please because they've come to believe that others will clean up after them since they are paid to do so. Thus, they move their responsibility to the city municipality or the body responsible for cleaning up the streets. After a fair or when people come out of cinema halls or public spaces, they know that there will be somebody cleaning up after them. This makes them believe that they have, hence, no need to be careful.

While blaming people and authorities for garbage, it is also important to check why there is so much garbage after all. The focus needs to go higher up the chain. The ban on plastic is one such step. Excess packaging for products is another issue. Tackling garbage and litter has to begin at the stage of its generation.

What to do

For too long, educators have been substituted by officials who assume that the mere pasting of a sign of ‘no littering’ is all that is to their job. That, incidentally, is the least of it. Littering is a distant cousin of the garbage problem, yet it is also closely interlinked.

The attitude of amusement that comes with the subject of trash during social discussions can be traced to the act that it is taken as a light-hearted, non-serious issue as compared to more ‘monumental’ and serious problems.

Social psychology is reflective of priorities a society accords to the issues it assumes require importance in daily life. In India, the collective responsibility as a society is often sacrificed at the altar of individual freedom. This might be an anomaly, but it needs to be remedied first. Only then can any garbage management plan succeed.

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