Could baby faces and pom poms be the answer to anti-social behaviour?

March 8, 2013 by
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain, Social Economy 


(Baby faces on shop windows, Greens End, London. Image via

In a moment, some fun ideas about music, babies, pom poms and the colour pink, but I want you to take them seriously, so first consider this:

Anti-social behaviour is not crime as such, but it can be highly unpleasant, and is linked to criminality in public perception, so tackling anti-social behaviour has value in itself whether or not it directly reduces crime.

It is not easy to have a convincing effect on crime or anti-social behaviour because both are a function of whether and how people report their experiences, and how those reports are then categorised and measured by police.

Finding ways to be tough on crime and the causes of crime (perhaps Tony Blair’s most famous policy encapsulation) remains a fundamental policy challenge that needs to be taken seriously (e.g. poverty, policing) but there is a place for lighter touch and more creative interventions if those measures help to inform rather than replace more significant efforts to tackle the problems.

In each of the following cases, the researcher or prospective funder is entitled to ask: How do you know it’s working? Sometimes there will be such evidence, but often the answer appears to be: Well we don’t know for sure, but it’s grounded in a credible idea, we believe in it, and most people seem to like it. Sometimes, especially when funds are tight, that may have to suffice?

So with those qualifications in mind, here are a few ideas on how we might be playful (but nonetheless serious) on changing the atmosphere in which anti-social behaviour happens.

1) Playing classical music on the Underground, either through loudspeakers of buskers is not new, but it appears to have a calming effect on commuters in a context that is otherwise stress and conflict inducing. Of course the evidence for the effect is not unequivocal and it depends on the music, the volume, whether it is played by a person or not etc, but the idea is basically sound (pun gleefully intended).

2) Getting graffiti artists to paint baby faces on shop doors is based on the idea that we have evolved to respond compassionately to baby faces (big cheeks, big eyes) so when we see them we automatically shift towards caring tenderly for our beloved fellow humans and away from that raging desire to smash open a generic door to get at the loot.

Police officer attaching pom-poms to a tree

(Pom Poms in Leicester. Image via

3) More recently, Matthew Taylor sent me a link to a BBC article on a particular kind of Guerilla knitting  that seems particularly speculative but nonetheless intriguing. The claim seems simply to be that people smile and feel more at ease when they see pom poms dangling from trees, and that this therefore encourages them to take routes and use areas that they otherwise wouldn’t. It appears (although I believe just anecdotally) that it may have helped to reduce fear of crime in an area of Leicester.

I really don’t know what to make of these ideas, but I generally like such interventions for two main reasons. First, they are a human, sensual and entertaining way of dealing with issues that tend to be otherwise gritty and difficult. Secondly, they problematise the idea that you always need hard evidence to make a difference. For a life-saving drug that might also kill you, it helps to know that it has been rigorously tested, but in the social world where the core issues relate to people’s hearts and minds, there is a place for this kind of playful speculation.

Although I would prefer not to be quoted and remembered as somebody who believed that pom poms were the solution to crime, I genuinely think we should respond to such seriously playful interventions as thoughtfully and supportively as possible.

Addendum: A colleague informs me that researchers have also tried painting furniture pink in particularly troubled areas on the grounds that “it’s hard to look tough sitting on a pink bench.” Again, it’s hard to measure the effect without knowing how tough somebody thinks they look on a blue bench, green bench etc!


  • Sam Thomas

    I came across Nesta’s “Standards of Evidence” the other day, which I thought was an interesting way of looking at these kinds of issues ( ).

    It sets out different levels at which a policy is known to be effective – starting from the kind of common-sense approach you mention (in their wording, “providing a logical reason, or set of reasons, for why your products/service could have impact on one of our outcomes, and why that would be an improvement on the current situation”). It then goes through several stages of how you’d strengthen the case for effectiveness, through to ‘higher’ standards of evidence such as an independent evaluation or a randomised control trial.

    I have to say, the example of guerilla knitting makes me want to resist that word ‘logical’. The reasons you’d give for it having an effect might be sound: something to do with the effect of the unexpected, maybe, or sheer delight at colour and form. But is being delighted by a pom-pom logical?

    By the way, the Americans call it “yarn bombing”, which I find rather charming:

  • Nathalie

    Boston’s (USA) Logan Airport often plays classical music throughout the corridors from when you get off the plane through to the queue for customs and immigration – I always find it to be such a pleasant welcome, and it does seem to have a calming effect and improve the experience of waiting in the queue.