Litter, gender and brand: The anticipation of incivilities and perceptions of crime prevalence

Litter is a problem in lots of places. Numerous reports have identified littering as a real nuisance, which has both a direct and indirect cost. Direct costs include the public money spent on street cleaning (about £1bn per year in UK according to Keep Britain Tidy) and indirect costs include the damage litter does to the environment. Litter is one of many incivilities that contributes to poor perceptions of public spaces. Other incivilities include vandalism and graffiti, public drunkenness, abandoned cars and, people shouting and screaming etc. Many studies show the negative impact these actions have on people’s feelings about spaces – especially their fear of crime.

Until now litter has always been investigated as part of a whole host of other incivilities. This means we do not know how much of an effect litter has on its own.  Can just seeing litter cause people to think crime is getting worse? In a new study, in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Professors Medway, Parker and Roper set out to answer this question. They isolated litter in a film-based experiment, and examined the impact it had on participants' anticipation of a wide range of other physical and social incivilities, and on their perceptions of crime.

The results of the study showed that people exposed to litter have both a higher anticipation of incivilities and perceptions of higher crime prevalence.  In other words, the respondents that saw litter were far more likely to anticipate other incivilities occurring, as well as thinking crime in the UK was getting worse. These findings could explain the increase in crime perceptions in the UK, even though many actual crime levels are falling.  With cuts to council funding many local authorities are having to reduce their street cleaning operations – so if people are seeing more litter then they will be thinking there is more crime, even if there actually isn't.

Based on their findings, the authors argue that authorities should focus on prioritising funds towards more targeted interventions to reduce litter, rather than expensive infrastructural investments (e.g. streetscape redesign, street lighting, CCTV). Some easy fixes, such as street sweeping at peak times, might result in some quick wins – most notably, reducing perceptions of crime.

The study also highlighted that people exposed to branded litter have greater recall of that litter than those exposed to unbranded litter. This suggests that brand owners and retailers should take part in cleaning up initiatives as well, since people are more likely to notice branded litter, and a littered area is much less likely to attract customers.

Finally, the study explored gender and litter, with findings suggesting that there is no significant difference between men's and women's anticipation of incivilities, regardless of whether they have seen litter or not. However, in keeping with other studies, women's perceptions of crime prevalence are higher than those of men, again regardless of whether or not they have been exposed to litter.

The article can be accessed in full here:

The full citation for the article is:

Dominic Medway, Cathy Parker, Stuart Roper. 2016. Litter, gender and brand: The anticipation of incivilities and perceptions of crime prevalence. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Volume 45. March. pp. 135-144. ISSN 0272-4944, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.12.002.

Member biographies

Dominic Medway is a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and Professor of Marketing at Manchester Business School. His research focuses on issues of space and place in all aspects of marketing activity, reflecting an academic training in geography. He has published extensively in variety of leading journals, including Environment & Planning A, Tourism Management, European Journal of Marketing and Marketing Theory.

Cathy Parker is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and Professor of Marketing and Retail at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.  She is also Adjunct Professor of Place Management at the Institute of Regional Development, University of Tasmania. She is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Place Management. She has published in many peer-reviewed academic journals, including European Journal of Marketing, Journal of Business Research and Journal of Marketing Management.