Littering and Following the Crowd

Why it's so tempting to throw trash on the ground, and how environmentalists are using psychology to change that
Vivian Wagner

Loretta Brown walked along Bishop’s Beach near Homer, Alaska, looking for plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, beer cans, cigarette butts, and old fishing nets.

“You tend to find things among the driftwood, since the same tide that washes up the driftwood washes up the trash,” she said, stooping to pick up a plastic water bottle. “It’s kind of like an Easter egg hunt.”

Brown is a marine debris education and outreach specialist with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, a nonprofit organization based in Homer that educates the public about coastal issues and offers eco-tours of the region. She also has a keen, experienced eye for litter.

“We’re likely to find some up here among the grasses,” she said, homing in on small pieces of Styrofoam nestled in clumps of grass among the basalt rocks and clam shells along the beach. “The birds will eat these.”

With all of the work she does picking up litter and educating people about the long-term environmental damage it does, Brown has developed some theories about what makes people throw out their trash, and how to get them to stop.

“It probably goes to our roots as a species,” she said. “We’ve always had refuse of some kind. In the beginning, it didn’t matter if you threw things on the ground, because it was biodegradable and would rot. It wasn’t a problem until plastic was invented.”

Education, she thinks, is the way to change the culture of littering.

“The best way for people to become engaged and change their behaviors is not just to inform them of the problem, but to have them actively experience the problem,” she said. “It’s about having the conversation—that really helps. It’s a behavioral change.”

Despite Alaska’s strict anti-littering laws, the state has a serious problem with marine debris because of ocean currents that bring trash from around the world to its shores, according to Julie Decker, director of the Anchorage Museum. In an exhibit called Gyre, the museum puts this trash on display, with artworks that incorporate and call attention to plastic trash collected from beaches worldwide.

The exhibit places litter under museum lights so that people will look at it, talk about it, think about where it came from, and ultimately change their behavior.

“In one moment you understand it,” she said.  “You see yourself in the problem. You see your own products. You see your own beaches. I wasn’t sure what kind of response we’d get, but watching children go through has been one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had. They leave talking about behavior, talking about what they’re going to do.”

One of the exhibit’s goals, according to Decker, is to start a conversation about why people litter in the first place.

“People want to make it invisible to themselves, to get rid of the trash and the smell,” Decker said. “Most people litter when they’re not being watched.”

Brown’s and Decker’s hunches about why people litter and what it will take to change their behavior have a basis in social science research, such as that done by Robert Cialdini, emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

“One of the things that’s fundamental to human nature is that we imitate the actions of those around us,” said Cialdini, who has conducted a number of landmark studies in littering and litter prevention—all of them pointing to the fact that people are likely to do what they think is expected of them. It’s about norms and expectations, he says: Change these, and you’ll change people's behavior.

Loretta Brown picks up litter on Bishop's Beach near Homer, Alaska. (Vivian Wagner)

“It’s the idea that look, no one is littering here, so it must not be a legitimate thing to do,” Cialdini said. “We take our cues about what to do in a particular setting by what people are doing there already.”

Some of Cialdini’s litter studies have taken place in parking lots and parking garages, with flyers placed under the windshield wipers of random cars. Unsuspecting subjects return to their cars and researchers observe them, to see what they do with the flyers. Will they throw them on the ground? In study after study, it turns out that cues in their environment are a strong determining factor in what actions people take.

“It depends on what you see immediately before you get to your car,” Cialdini said. “If you see a environment that is highly littered, you litter. If there is not litter, you are significantly less likely to litter.”

But if there is just one piece of litter in an otherwise litter-free environment, subjects are even less likely to throw their trash on the ground.

“If there is one piece, you are least likely to litter,” Cialdini said. “If you see one piece, it reminds you that most people are not littering here. It calls attention to the fact that the majority of people are not littering.”

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Vivian Wagner is a writer based in New Concord, Ohio. She teaches English at Muskingum University.

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