Litter Begets Litter

Here’s a little bit of applied psychology for you. In 1990 some researchers tried an experiment. People were handed a piece of paper in a local park while they were walking down a path. (A public service announcement to be exact.) After they walked past the leaflet handing researcher they then walked through an area where, unbeknown to them, the number of pieces of litter on the ground was being meticulously controlled.

You may be able to guess the results. If there were no pieces of litter on the ground, or only one piece, the subjects were unlikely to throw the unwanted piece of paper on the ground. After that, the likelihood of the person discarding the paper on the ground was exactly proportional to the number of pieces of paper already on the ground. The more litter already present on the ground, the more likely that the next person would also throw their piece of paper on the ground. It’s the law of social conformity.

Litter begets litter.

This isn’t new news. The 1990 research (Cialdini, Reno and Kalgren) was a repeat of similar research done in 1973 (Finnie), 1977 (Geller, Witmer and Tuso) and 1978 (Krause, Freedmen and Whitcup.)

How does this apply to you?

The law of social conformity affects everything. If you leave trash in the bottom of the trash can in the back of your rig, the next guy is likely to leave trash in it at the end of his shift too. If the floor is dirty it’s likely to get dirtier. If there’s blood splatter on the ceiling, the next medic is more likely to not wipe the compartment down either.

It’s not just a cleanliness issue. If you attend a C.E. class and twelve of your coworkers are there, you’re more likely to attend the next one than if there are only four. If two-hundred of your coworkers forge their C.E. documentation, you’re more likely to do it than you would be if only five committed the offense. If you don’t call the patient by their name it’s more likely that the next caregiver won’t either.

Of course, the inverse is also true. Your personal patient greeting, clean ambulance and impeccable C.E. record are just as likely to influence the culture for the better as your negative behavior is to influence it for the worst. Sometimes we talk about the culture as if we are only visiting. We are the culture. What did you beget today?

Now it’s your turn: What else have you noticed that begets more of itself? The possibilities are endless.

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  1. Similar research done with graffiti. If it is over-painted immediately the problem eventually goes away.

    Swearing/cussing begets more swearing/cussing.

  2. I think uniforms are a contender.

    Few people turn up for duty in piss poor excuse for uniform, looking sloppy, unironed, untucked etc etc others will no doubt follow suit. “Well why should i look perfect if everyone else looks sloppy??”

    Of course the opposite is true, if majority turn up well turned out, looking professional those tempted to be sloppy will think differently

  3. In our area it’s “Hmm, that next-door department is getting away with not using head blocks or straps with their c-spine patients, I bet we could get away with it too. C-spining these settlement-chasers is such a drag. None of them have a real problem, they’re just out for money.”

    As a result, you have three of the busiest departments in the area providing “care” that would get their licenses pulled anywhere else.


  1. […] avoid and then I gave you 207 reasons to stay current on you continuing education. I explained why litter begets litter and then asked you to finish the sentence, “Behind every great EMT…” We ended off […]

  2. […] the ambulance, it gives silent permission to others to do the same. It’s another form of the litter begets litter phenomenon. One person does the right thing and others tend to do the same. One person does the wrong thing […]