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The psychology of littering: Is shaming the answer to stopping litterbugs in their tracks?

Wilshire at the Wiltern Theatre
Wilshire at the Wiltern Theatre
Omar Barcena via Flickr

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The City of Los Angeles disposes of about 3,400 tons of  trash a day, and some of that trash ends up on the streets.

Back in April, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti launched an initiative to help clean up the  city's trash-strewn streets. But LA’s population is only growing, which means more trash and more litter. Like LA, littering is a serious problem in Hong Kong, where its residents throw away nearly 15,000 tons of trash a day. Much of which ends up on its streets and coastlines. While Hong Kong has littering fines, they don’t seem to act as much of a deterrent for its residents. So what’s to be done to stop people from littering? How about publicly shaming them with a poster of their face plastered around the city?

The Hong Kong Cleanup Initiative recently used DNA collected from discarded cigarette butts, gum and condoms to create renderings of the faces of  people who left litter in the city. The DNA samples provided enough information to determine the person’s ethnicity as well as eye, hair and skin color. The “faces of litter” were then displayed with the kind of trash that was found, to add to the humiliation of it all.

We’ll explore the psychology of littering and how new technology and social media are changing how we call people out for bad behavior. Does using people’s DNA go too far? Does litter shaming make people  act more responsibly towards the environment? Could it help change environmental policies worldwide?


Robert Cialdini, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing  at Arizona State University and author of  “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”

Jennifer Jacquet, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at NYU and author of “Is Shame Necessary?”