Friday, July 17, 2015

Litter in the park

Deborah Ross wrote in yesterday's Times:
Litter is a class issue, but why? 

I live an equal distance from two London parks. One is in a well-to-do, middle-class area and one is not. (To give you some idea of how different these parks are, when it last snowed, in the well-to-do park someone built not a snowman, but a snow-flautist, complete with twig for flute, while in the other it was a huge snow-penis, complete with huge snow balls.).

Since I'm often in both parks, what with the dog and all, one thing I have noticed is this: whereas the well-to-do middle-class park (OK, Highgate Wood) does not have a litter problem, the other (OK, Finsbury Park) seriously does.

That is, say I go in the morning: while Finsbury Park is covered in yesterday’s picnic debris, Highgate Wood is not. Different staffing levels? Highgate Wood employs more people to clear up? I don’t think so. Even while I'm walking, I see people chucking drink cans, burger wrappers, crisp packets and chicken bones all over the place in Finsbury Park in a way I never see in the wood.

So, is litter a class issue? If so, why? Particularly when it seems counterintuitive. Wouldn't the middle classes, with their cleaners and gardeners and pond hooverers — I know someone who has a man come in to hoover her pond — be more likely to think that others will step in to do their dirty work?

I have asked around and the following explanations have been offered: paying higher taxes means a higher sense of ownership of public spaces; the less well-off are more disaffected and have less interest in maintaining society’s infrastructure; middle-class culture simply pays more respect to the environment; the middle classes are restrained by social shaming (but shouldn't everyone be ashamed of dropping litter, and if not, why not?). I don’t know. You tell me . .

Once one has recovered from amazement that a Times columnist would be puzzled over so obvious a question, one feels inclined to frame an answer.

The simplest possible response is something like this:
Tidy parks are the result of tidy people, people with prosocial personality traits such as agreeableness, intelligence and empathy. Such people tend to get on in our imperfect meritocracy and thrive in the middle class. The lower classes include many who haven't got on, people who tend disproportionately to the 'dark triad' - lack of empathy, disregard for others, selfishness. For good or ill, these qualities are rather heritable which accounts for their persistence across the social classes. Hence your differential litter phenomenon.
The distinction between the prosocial and antisocial personality type is not well captured in the five-factor model. The newer HEXACO model apparently shows a greater ability to discriminate with its six dimensions of personality:
  • Honesty-Humility (H): sincere, honest, faithful, loyal, modest/unassuming versus sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful, pompous.
  • Emotionality (E): emotional, oversensitive, sentimental, fearful, anxious, vulnerable versus brave, tough, independent, self-assured, stable.
  • Extraversion (X): outgoing, lively, extraverted, sociable, talkative, cheerful, active versus shy, passive, withdrawn, introverted, quiet, reserved.
  • Agreeableness (A): patient, tolerant, peaceful, mild, agreeable, lenient, gentle versus ill-tempered, quarrelsome, stubborn, choleric.
  • Conscientiousness (C): organized, disciplined, diligent, careful, thorough, precise versus sloppy, negligent, reckless, lazy, irresponsible, absent-minded.
  • Openness to Experience (O): intellectual, creative, unconventional, innovative, ironic versus shallow, unimaginative, conventional.
You can see how pro- and antisocial personality types are going to map onto this - you can seek confirmation here.

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