Broken Windows

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of New York City’s sudden drop in crime-rate during the mid-1990’s in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. When David Gunn was hired as the New York City subway director in 1984, he had a plan to reduce crime by using the principles of the “Broken Window Theory.”

The Broken Window Theory states that if you walk by a building that has a broken window, you automatically make some assumptions about the people who own the building and are responsible for its upkeep.  They apparently don’t care enough about the building to keep it in good working order and aesthetically pleasing.

While only a small percentage of people would take the owner’s neglect as license to continue vandalizing the property, most of us wouldn’t feel the need to take special care to keep it clean, either.  If the owners don’t care, then why should you?  If the broken window goes unattended long enough, we begin to transfer our low opinion to the surrounding neighborhood.  We take less and less responsibility, and the environment gets worse and worse.

Gunn’s idea focused on reducing crime by eliminating graffiti on the subway cars as soon as it appeared.  Under his “Clean Car Program,” new cars were introduced to the system one-by-one.  At the end of their routes, they were inspected for vandalism.  If any graffiti was found, the car was immediately repainted before it was put back into service.  Whenever more extensive damage was evident, the car was pulled from the line until it could be reconditioned.  By 1989, every single car had been cleaned.

Gunn’s initiative was taken up by William Bratton when he was appointed chief of the Transit Authority Police in 1990.  Bratton cracked down on turnstile jumpers who tried to ride for free and brought about innovations in the way arrests were processed so that they could be handled more easily and on-site.  Originally, officers were skeptical and even pessimistic of the new measures, but it’s hard to argue with a 75% reduction in subway crime in less than a decade.  By sweating the small stuff, they had signaled to would-be criminals that they cared enough to put up a fight for their subways.

The Broken Window Theory applies in many ways around us.  Any time we don’t care enough to pay attention to the details with our own stuff, it won’t be long before others start to ignore them, as well.  A little neglect on our part is likely to bring about wholesale disregard from those who have less ownership than we do.  In this respect, the small stuff does matter.

I see the principle at work in my own home on a regular basis.  If something gets stacked on the dining room table and stays there for any length of time, everyone assumes that the table is now the designated “stuff dumping site.”  Before long, it’s a mountain of indiscriminate piles that give birth to even more piles while we sleep.

And if we have “broken windows” when the kids’ friends come over, it’s a lost cause to get them to clean up after themselves.  When it looks like my own family doesn’t even care if our rooms or living areas are clean, visitors revert to their baser instincts.  In other words, “let the chips (and salsa) fall where they may.”

So, my new motto is: “Keep your ‘windows’ in good repair, and you’ll save yourself housekeeping despair.”

(S – Gladwell, Malcolm.  The Tipping Point)


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Filed under accountability, ownership

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