You Can’t Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel


zestyping pointed me to a talk with Philip Zimbardo.

I also did research on vandalism. When I was a teacher at NYU I noticed that there were hundreds and hundreds of vandalized cars on the streets throughout the city. I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to NYU in the Bronx, and I’d see a car in the street. I’d call the police and say, "You know, there’s a car demolished on 167th and Sedgwick Avenue. Was it an accident?" When he told me it was vandals, I said, "Who were the vandals? I’d like to interview them." He told me that they were little, black, or Puerto Rican kids who come out of the sewers, smash everything, paint graffiti on the walls, break windows and disappear.

So I created what ethologists would call "releaser cues". I bought used cars, took off license plates, and put the hood up, and we photographed what happened. It turns out that it wasn’t little, black, Puerto Rican kids, but white, middle-class Americans who happened to be driving by. We had a car near NYU in the Bronx. Within ten minutes the driver of the first car that passed by jacked it up and took a tire. Ten minutes later a little family would come. The father took the radiator, the mother emptied the trunk, and the kid took care of the glove compartment. In 48 hours we counted 23 destructive contacts with that car. In only one of those were kids involved. We did a comparison in which we set out a car a block from Palo Alto, where Stanford University is. The car was out for a week, and no one touched it until the last day when it rained and somebody put the hood down. God forbid that the motor should get wet.



Russell O’Connor: contact me