James Q. Wilson Helps Me Keep My Kitchen Clean

March 19th, 2013

The Broken Window Theory, first introduced by social scientist James Q. Wilson, roughly states that a key way of solving crime is to maintain a well-ordered environment. For example, if a vandal breaks a window, invest in fixing the window. That will send a signal to other criminals that the neighborhood is resilient and won’t tolerate crime, etc. Famously Rudy Giuliani adopted these theories, and helped to clean up New York City, by eliminating graffiti and other marks of vandalism.

I recently applied this theory to my own kitchen. I am somewhat messy, and usually after I eat something, I tend to leave the container  on the kitchen table. For me, this consists of plastic containers of Trader Joe’s fruit and salads (most of what I eat). When I leave one or two packs on the table, it doesn’t bother me to leave a third or fourth, or then a seventh or eighth container (I eat a lot of Trader Joe’s). By the end of the week, the table is an absolute mess.

So I decided to do something different–throw the container away immediately. Then, when I am tempted to leave something else, I see that the table is now clean, and I don’t want to mess it up, so I throw away the next piece of trash. Now, I am not throwing the stuff out because I necessarily want to keep the kitchen clean, but I nudged myself to wanting to maintain the status quo, which is a clean kitchen. There is a very subtle difference, but from a behavioral economics  perspective it matters.

So far, it is working well, so far.

This is the Broken Window Theory in my kitchen.

And what is it with libertarians and broken windows? Wilson? Bastiat’s broken window fallacy? It must be some kind of freedom thing.