Why do people litter?
It’s a question of obvious relevance in Louisiana, where littering costs taxpayers some $40 million a year, according to statistics cited by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral scientist and columnist for The Wall Street Journal, thinks he has the answer.
A reader recently asked Ariely to crack the mystery of why people leave trash in their wake. “Almost no one admits to littering,” the reader observed, “but I always see a lot of trash on the ground — obviously, someone must be leaving it there. Why won’t people acknowledge their responsibility?”
We had to wonder if that reader, identified only as Tomer, hailed from Louisiana. It seemed, at the very least, the kind of question quite a few of us have asked while driving along the state’s streets and highways, noticing the ugly scatter of beer bottles, plastic cups, soda cans and other refuse lining the landscape. After all, a region touted as a sportsman’s paradise shouldn’t look like the bottom of a Dumpster.
Regarding the dark motivations of the litterbug, Ariely has a theory. “Psychologists find that when people do something they know is wrong,” he writes, “they automatically try to find reasons why they had to behave that way. This is known as ‘fundamental attribution error.’”
Fundamental attribution error?
“For example,” Ariely explains, “you might say to yourself that you had no choice but to drop that paper cup on the ground, because you were running late and there was no trash can nearby. In this way we convince ourselves that littering isn’t ‘really’ our fault. But when other people do the same thing, we tend to assume it’s because they’re just bad people—in this case, litterbugs.”
Maybe there’s a simpler word for this phenomenon — namely, hypocrisy. That seems to be what Ariely is describing when he discusses fundamental attribution error in a more general way.
“This tendency,” he says, “is so deeply rooted in human psychology that it’s often impossible to get people to acknowledge their own wrongdoings, which contributes to some nasty social problems, including polluting, breaking traffic laws and not paying taxes.”
One would think that personal responsibility, so often claimed as a conservative ideal, would have more currency in a red state like Louisiana when it comes to littering. In a broader sense, though, the fight against litter should be at least one issue that transcends politics.
It’s a stain on this great state, one that every citizen should resolve to erase.