The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

What Are Your “Broken Windows?" Here’s a List of Mine

The “broken windows theory” of policing holds that when a community tolerates minor examples of disorder and petty crime, such as broken windows, graffiti, turnstile-jumping, or drinking in public, people are more likely to commit more serious crimes. Read More

Your broken window theory is wrong

The broken window theory is akin to a zero-tolerance policing policy. During my city's zero tolerance years 2004-2007 the police department averaged 140,000 arrests in a city with 630,000 people. That's one arrest for every 5 people. Minor crime arrest infractions included loitering, littering, vulgar language, riding a bicycle on a sidewalk and riding a bicycle after dark without a headlamp.

During this time of zero tolerance, crime went up. It went way up. It turns out that imprisoning people for minor infractions makes them more likely to commit more crimes because being arrested make people feel powerless, hopeless and angry. The city has cut its arrests by half and violent crime has sharply decreased, although 70,000 arrests is still way too much. The city now focuses on gun arrests, which is a successful key to reducing violent crime.

Getting back to the sweatpants and mail. Keeping an annoyingly clean house for some people might motivate them. I find I need the small pile of unsorted mail and the sweatpants (minor infractions). The little scraps of paper are where I make notes, jot down ideas and are the catalyst for getting things done. If I put them all away and get dressed in my best clothes then I feel uncomfortable and not much happens. In fact, putting the mail away is dangerous because I'll forget to pay a bill or fill out a form. It's a small mail pile and it isn't hurting anything, and my bed remains unmade because after I get up in the morning I go downstairs and don't return to it until night-time. I've saved much time not making my bed.

The broken window theory doesn't hold water.

I know what you mean.

I know just what you mean. Even as I write this, I'm wearing yesterday's pants. My mom and dad both say that I should wear my clothes more than once a day because they can't keep up with the laundry. I also feel less motivated to do things right when something's already wrong.

the POINT being, on a

the POINT being, on a PERSONAL level, i think YES, it makes a lot of sense...because if you decide to ignore the unmade bed...walk by the pile of clothes...stay in your pajamas...basically ignore one tiny thing in addition to another tiny thing...it is psychological baggage that is adding up, and making you feel worse, even if it is subconscious. the flipside of this is, if you take the minute to straighten your bed, then the 15 seconds to pick up the socks and throw them in the hamper, then the 5 minutes to get dressed and brush your teeth...or WHATEVER the "things" are for you...these things have a way of being exponential in either a positive or negative direction. i have had this similar discussion with many friends, and gretchen, i think you are right on. and really, it's only an experiment, a suggestion...TRY IT & if it works for you, then GREAT...if not, ignore/move on. i suggest we try to fix our tiny broken windows... i suspect for many people, they will see a positive outcome. i do.

Broken window is not wrong, actually quite apt

Hi "Anonymous on February 21, 2013 - 9:29am"
I think you're wrong in making a direct analogy between a broken windows theory and zero-tolerance policing. And to be fair to you, the article's opening probably leads the reader to that wrong analogy by referring to turnstile jumping and public drinking.

The thing about the broken windows theory is not so much that people are arrested for breaking windows or graffitiing but that these signs of petty crime are promptly removed when they occur.

The theory proposes that in a community where broken windows, graffitied walls, abandoned cars, vandalised property and other signs of petty crime are tolerated and allowed to remain on view, the unspoken message will be that these activities are ok. The situation quickly escalates into more serious crimes or more serious damage to property.

So a broken windows approach will ensure that repairs, etc. are made straight away. In other words, it's a crime prevention strategy not a zero-tolerance strategy.

Understood correctly, the broken windows theory is very applicable to what Gretchen Rubin is suggesting: namely that the "broken window" or "abandoned car" in your life (which may not necessarily be spending the day in sweats or not making your bed – it will be something different for everyone) is likely to escalate to something more serious, more debilitating or more harmful if tolerated and allowed to become a habit.

Broken window theory is not wrong, actually quite apt

Hi "Anonymous on February 21, 2013 - 9:29am"
I think you're wrong in making a direct analogy between a broken windows theory and zero-tolerance policing. And to be fair to you, the article's opening probably leads the reader to that wrong analogy by referring to turnstile jumping and public drinking.

The thing about the broken windows theory is not so much that people are arrested for breaking windows or graffitiing but that these signs of petty crime are promptly removed when they occur.

The theory proposes that in a community where broken windows, graffitied walls, abandoned cars, vandalised property and other signs of petty crime are tolerated and allowed to remain on view, the unspoken message will be that these activities are ok. The situation quickly escalates into more serious crimes or more serious damage to property.

So a broken windows approach will ensure that repairs, etc. are made straight away. In other words, it's a crime prevention strategy not a zero-tolerance strategy.

Understood correctly, the broken windows theory is very applicable to what Gretchen Rubin is suggesting: namely that the "broken window" or "abandoned car" in your life (which may not necessarily be spending the day in sweats or not making your bed – it will be something different for everyone) is likely to escalate to something more serious, more debilitating or more harmful if tolerated and allowed to become a habit.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

more...

Subscribe to The Happiness Project

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.