How to Fight Crime by Making Your Bed

Storefronts in the Bronx

In the 1980s, New York City’s crime rate was soaring. Total crime had more than doubled over the previous two decades; violent crimes tripled. It peaked in 1990 and then began a sudden, nationwide decline as the dismal economy began to show new life.

But New York’s economy did not follow the national trend. It remained flat. Yet crime plummeted to a third of its peak rate, surpassing the drop in the national average. New Yorkers say they feel the safest they have in years, and the city’s notorious subway system is no longer the fearsome dungeon it once was.

Exactly what they did differently is the subject of some debate. The authorities tried all sorts of things, but there is one measure that is widely credited for being the catalyst that made the other approaches effective: 

They cleaned stuff and fixed broken things.

They scrubbed graffiti from the subway cars, collected litter from the sidewalks, and replaced damaged fixtures in public places.

And they kept them that way. Vandalized walls were repainted immediately. When they got tagged again, they were repainted again. The policy dictated that anything that was repaired or cleaned was to be kept in that condition no matter how many times they had to restore it. The epidemic of petty crime began to wane, and so did serious crime.

The approach was based on a theory by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. They argued that the disorder symbolized by graffiti, litter and minor crimes would inevitably lead to major crime and broken communities.

The rationale behind it is that disorder is infectious. A broken window, a littered sidewalk, or a graffitied wall is positively begging for more disrespect. Presumably, the sorry state of a building or street invites somewhat shady characters to be at their shadiest, whereas a spotless street with intact buildings would inhibit the worst of their behavior. A neglected space broadcasts the message “Nobody cares, nobody is watching,” and would-be criminals do not feel unwelcome.

It is called the Broken Window theory, after the assertion that a broken and unrepaired window in a house will soon invite vandalism, which will in turn invite drug dealers, arsonists, squatters and bogeymen to the neighborhood, and eventually the area becomes a slum.

This phenomenon is easy to identify, and it applies to more than just crime. Anytime something goes from an immaculate state to a flawed one, it becomes exponentially more vulnerable to further degradation. This principle extends beyond physical things, to good habits, stable relationships, pleasant moods and positive attitudes.

It’s that first broken window that is so crucial to fix immediately, because the second and third happen much more easily.

When the kitchen counter is spotless, even a preoccupied teenager is less likely to leave a dirty plate on it than he would be if it were already cluttered. It’s easy to toss clothes thoughtlessly onto the floor when the it’s already covered in clothes, but the same person would hesitate if the floor was clear.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know that when I make my bed in the morning (and I’m sub-50/50 in that department) I am far more likely to have a productive day.

I didn’t this morning. I had an astoundingly slow start, checking off maybe one or two easy items from my monster to-do list by noon. Of course, I didn’t make the connection between the careless start to the day and the bizarre, unproductive funk I found myself in, but upon reflection it seems pretty obvious. I woke up a bit late, like it didn’t matter. I left the bed unmade, like it didn’t matter, and I burned the first half of the day, like it didn’t matter.

Once I made myself attack a few items on my list, things started getting done. Turns out productivity is infectious too.

Though clutter, disorder, and crime appear to be contagious, they’re really not. It’s the mindset behind those behaviors that spreads. Good neighborhoods make you feel proud, fortunate, and respectful. Bad neighborhoods make you feel worried, suspicious, and disdainful. Success inspires success. Malice inspires malice. Apathy inspires apathy. We’ve all seen it.

Richard has gone running 17 mornings in a row. On the 18th, he oversleeps and has to rush out the door to work, missing his run. He has a miserable, disorganized day at work. The next day he wakes up dreading the office and doesn’t feel like running. He skips it, promising himself to get back to it the next day.

Broken window. He’s not sure how he ever felt the motivation to run. Two weeks later he still hasn’t gone running again.

Lisa’s mom decides she’s had enough of her daughter’s messy room and cleans it up. She scoops up the clothes off the floor and into the laundry, makes the bed, vacuums, straightens her desk and bookshelves. Lisa loves the clean room and keeps it immaculate for a few weeks. On the last day of school, she unloads a bag of miscellaneous papers from her locker onto her desk to be sorted out later.

Broken window. She never finds a good time to sort through it. In two days the room is a pigsty.

Ramon has been saving $20 a week since he started his job at the grocery store so he can buy his first electric guitar. One weekend he’s broke and decides to withdraw $20 from his savings account, to be paid back next paycheck.

Broken window. He never seems to have a spare $40 to pay it back, and stops depositing the $20 a week. A month later, he spends the idle $180 on a pair of sunglasses and a used iPod.

Jake hasn’t had a drink in fifteen years, and an old friend comes to town…

…you get the idea.

These are simplistic examples, but we can’t deny that the first blemish on something clean is the pivotal one. If it is left to fester, the problem grows. It becomes bigger and more complicated. That’s why the immaculate state of anything is so crucial. Sometimes that first broken window is the last point where problems are still manageable.

So it stands to reason that if you want a clean house (or anything else) you have to a) put in the effort to get it there – completely there — and then b) police it for little broken windows. Things sitting out. Tasks that have been ignored once. Duties that have been ducked once. Promises that have been broken once. Twice is too late; you have to start again.

Tomorrow, mark my word, I will make my bed. I’ll dive into my to-do list after a short and healthy breakfast.

I’ll keep that first half-hour of the day spotless, and then I’ll have a morning start worthy of respect. With a little vigilance, I should be able to keep my mindset a good neighborhood, all day.

R

Photo by MajoraCarterGroup


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{ 51 Comments }

Patty - Why Not Start Now? October 8, 2009 at 12:35 am

“and then b) police it for little broken windows.”

So true. Staying on track is a series of constant little “policings” (if that’s a word). I think the key is maintaining a constant stream of energy to do it. That’s hard for me. Something that consistently derails me, since I work from home a lot: getting up and starting the day without taking a shower. Working in my sweats. I know that’s supposed to be the freedom of the entrepreneurial life, but it’s not so for me. When I get up and take my shower right away, everything flows so much better.

Thanks for the insightful post. By the way, one of the reason’s I love reading your blog is because you write so well! It’s pure joy to read!
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Welcome to the Party Called Life =-.

{ Reply }

David October 8, 2009 at 9:52 am

Oh me too. The early shower really brightens the tone of my day. I guess the trick is to set up the day so that you have the energy when you need it, i.e. do the ‘policing’ at a time when you’re still feeling vigilant.

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Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 8, 2009 at 1:09 am

You are an engaging writer David~ especially today I enjoyed the generalisation from an environmental psychology theory to daily living experiences; unity.

The theme of the post had me humming the tune, From Little Things, Big Things Grow…

As the idiom states, the little things are not so little…

My rental has not been looked after, I renovate at my own cost because I want to live&work in an environment that is healthy…

Whilst I do not police for chaos, I do ask myself, “Is it harmonious that chaos be present here, now?”.
veggie garden~ yes; kitchen area~ no; workspace~ state of mu…

~:-)

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David October 8, 2009 at 9:55 am

Thanks Char. Good on you for investing in your rental. Many people say it isn’t worth putting money into rentals, but if it’s improving the quality of your life, how could it not be worthwhile?

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Hayden Tompkins October 8, 2009 at 3:30 am

Oh, this is FANTASTIC. This is exactly how I’m sabotaging my health routine!
.-= Hayden Tompkins´s last blog ..A Call to Action =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 9:57 am

Thanks Hayden, and another thanks for the shout-out on your blog. Made my morning. I didn’t tell anyone this, but today is my birthday. The last year of my twenties begins today… time to fix some windows.

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Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 8, 2009 at 3:19 pm

hey~ happy birth day!

emanating self manifesting glass repair kit with staining options

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Hayden Tompkins October 8, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Happy Birthday!!!
.-= Hayden Tompkins´s last blog ..The Secret to Self-Sabotage =-.

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brigid October 8, 2009 at 4:20 am

My Mum had lots of quotes she bought me up with.
One of them was “If your room is a mess, so is your life”
I have experimented with this many times, and noticed the truth of it.
I Make my bed, tidy my room and enjoy my life.
Simple and effective
.-= brigid´s last blog ..FINDING MY PASSION or Tarot versus Choice or Choosing to Heal =-.

{ Reply }

David October 8, 2009 at 9:59 am

As much as I’ve denied that in the past, I know it’s true. A clean room gives off such a completely different mental vibe than a messy one… it can’t help but seep into your mindset.

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Srinivas Rao October 8, 2009 at 8:49 am

That was definitely very a catchy title for a post. It was also very interesting to note how the surroundings influence a person’s behavior. My friend was telling me a similar story about why nobody in India follows traffic laws. He said “most people have the attitude that if that other guy didn’t stop at a red light, why the hell should I?” Good stuff
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..Embrace the winds of Change =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 10:06 am

For sure, that’s another application of that principle. Groupthink. A person would almost feel like a moron stopping at a red light if nobody else did.

I also notice the way people I know talk differently around different crowds. In my line of work I’ve seen people who are very articulate and proper in the office, and when they visit a construction site, they start swearing more and using more slang. I do it too. It’s interesting.

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John October 8, 2009 at 9:41 am

I hate to say it but mid-way through your post, I immediately stopped to make my bed and then proceeded to clean my side of the room (I live with a roommate). It’s so true how little “broken windows” can lead to whole mess of problems.

I say a clean room begets a clean lifestyle.

P.S. How many days until you leave? Excited?
.-= John´s last blog ..My Promised First Video Post…Enjoy! =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 10:07 am

Haha… makes a difference though, doesn’t it?

I leave in 8 days. Excited and very busy. But good busy. :)

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Avi October 8, 2009 at 9:47 am

“Success inspires success. Malice inspires malice.”
That reminds me of a Hebrew saying ‘mitzvah goreret mitzvah.’ A good deed leads to or begets or causes another good deed, and a bad deed leads to a bad deed.

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David October 8, 2009 at 10:10 am

Hi Avi. Absolutely. Both are such strong pulls. What’s hard is to respond to bad deeds with good ones. We’re wired to reciprocate in kind, but we don’t have to.

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pannonica October 8, 2009 at 10:30 am

The Broken Window theory sounds nice and satisfies our pattern-making instinct for things to make easy, “right-feeling” sense, but it’s an oversimplification and the documented successful results in NYC, Boston, and elsewhere aren’t necessarily directly correlated to that one approach. Why? Because society is complicated and messy (I love getting meta) and the application of Kelling and Wilson’s ideas coincided with so many other influencing factors, both obvious and not-so-obvious, that the theory is inconclusive at best.

For academic rebuttals, see Dubner and Leavitt’s chapter on it in Freakonomics and some of the references here in Wikipedia.

On the other hand, if making your bed, getting on a regular exercise schedule, and so forth helps get your body and brain juices flowing, improves your outlook and approach to life, more power to you. Just don’t make the leap of faith that it’s some sort of magical theory in action. It’s simple biology and psychology.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m actually a very organized, anti-clutter person. I just happen to think sometimes one needs to adopt a contrary opinion to keep oneself (and others) from getting carried away. While I think the old saw “a clean desk is the sign of an unhealthy mind” is a bit glib, there’s a nubbin of truth in there, just as setting a good example along the lines of “broken window” isn’t entirely fallacious either.
.-= pannonica´s last blog ..Watch this space. =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I agree with you. It is an oversimplification, with regards to social factors surrounding crime. The details of New York’s approach to crime in the 1990s is a complex and controversial discussion that doesn’t really belong here. I decided to exclude, for example, that part of the ‘mess’ they cleaned up was the visible homeless population.

I’m aware of Dubner and Leavitt’s abortion theory, and the half dozen or so other factors that are suspected to have contributed to New York’s substantial decrease in crime. For what it’s worth, most of the other factors are applicable to the entire nation, which did see a dramatic crime decrease, though not as dramatic as NYC’s.

Media darling Malcom Gladwell identified the Broken Window theory as the most intriguing factor behind the shift, and regarded it as a Tipping Point in New York’s recovery. I think it is fascinating and I see this same mechanic everywhere in life.

There is no doubt that the Broken Window theory works. We’ve all observed it in many forms, though we may call it something else. Whether it alone is enough to turn a city around is another issue entirely, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the between-the-lines message in this post.

I’m sure you realize this article is not about crime in New York, it’s about applying the self-evident Broken Window theory to your everyday life. Take it for what it’s worth.

I never mentioned faith or magic. Human behavior is all biology and psychology as far as I’m concerned. The rabbit hole always goes deeper, and in a lighthearted, thousand-word blog post, you’re not going to find the graduate-level analysis you seem to be looking for. But I do thank you for your comment, there’s always more to talk about :)

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Erin October 8, 2009 at 10:40 am

Don’t tell anyone, but I am a compulsive bed maker. I both blame and thank my mother. She somehow believed that from the age of 5 and up, everyone should make their own bed as soon as your feet hit the floor. It takes less than a minute.

She never straightened or remade a bed that a 5 year old did (though it might have needed it). Enjoyed your post. Made me think of the blessings my parents brought to my life.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..Inspiration =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 12:33 pm

That’s a great philosophy. I’m proud to say my bed was made within two minutes of waking this morning.

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Roya October 25, 2009 at 9:41 am

I really like the overall theory of the article.
I do cringe, however, at making the bed “as soon as one gets up.” Bedsheets need to air out a bit before being slung back into the airless made-up state.
I make mine up after my shower.

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David October 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Ah, I didn’t know that. I’ll give them some air.

Eric October 8, 2009 at 10:54 am

Great blog and great insights! Keeping my broken windows in repair is something I struggle with daily. I have to make a consious effort to fight off the procrastination. Keeping my workspace organized is my most common broken window. It’s so easy for things to pile up. I definately notice that as my workspace becomes more organized, so do my thoughts and actions.

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David October 8, 2009 at 12:35 pm

For sure. Though there are critics of the theory out there, I don’t know anybody who thinks more clearly amongst clutter. A pile is definitely more daunting that a few identifiable things.

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pannonica October 8, 2009 at 11:26 am

… and on a more superficial and whimsical note, the healthy and hygienic benefits of airing out your bed: “Airing out your bed and bedroom” from the blog Making a House a Home, which in turn cites and quotes from Cheryl Mendelson’s book, Home Comforts: the art & science of keeping house.
.-= pannonica´s last blog ..Watch this space. =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Funny you mention that title. Page 31 was the inspiration for this article:

One rushed morning, I made the mistake of throwing my bathrobe and newspaper on [an always-vacant chair] as I passed by. That evening, the chair held not only the bathrobe and newspaper but also my husband’s dry cleaning, a plastic replica of the Millennium Falcon along with Luke Skywalker, a tube of antiseptic ointment, one copy of PC magazine, and five Tinkertoys. Yet this chair had stood entirely empty for the preceding six months.

{ Reply }

pannonica October 8, 2009 at 1:11 pm

*smile*
.-= pannonica´s last blog ..Watch this space. =-.

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suzen October 8, 2009 at 11:33 am

Oh David this is SO true – love the broken window connection! Neatness is a top priority for me – mom grilled me on “There is a place for everything and everything in it’s place!” I used to think she was just a compulsive cleaner but nothing makes me more nuts than clutter!

When my kids were here though, that clean counter top was NOT incentive for them to keep it that way, despite my haranguing and finally putting notes in the sink and counter tops “FIND the dishwasher!” Funny now in their OWN places, they keep them wonderfully clean.

I think the few minutes it takes on daily basis to keep things in order is really an example of caring about yourself and having respect. Great post!!!!

{ Reply }

David October 8, 2009 at 12:42 pm

A few minutes of ‘clutter policing’ really does go a long way. Funny how I don’t always make time for it.

I do understand though, why it’s easier to keep things in their place when it’s your own place. It’s because you made those ‘homes’ for things, and you know them intimately. Having said that, many of my things still don’t have homes. One day.

{ Reply }

John Tedder October 8, 2009 at 12:45 pm

David,
In 1980 I was in the World Trade Center and had to get back to Madison Square Garden to take a train back to Hamilton Square, NJ where I was living at the time. I was with a friend of mine who knew the city and he took me down to the subway platform where I could catch a ride to MSG.

Sitting on the tracks was the ugliest excuse for a train car I had ever seen. It was army green with horrible graffiti written all over it. It looked like it had been sitting there on the tracks since World War Two. I can still see it in my mind. It did get me to MSG though.

Around that same time, I parked a car full of luggage on the street outside of a Manhattan hotel. It was a Sunday morning and I only left it there for a few minutes. When I returned, every piece of luggage in the car had been stolen.

I have to go make my bed now.

I found your blog through a comment you left on Steve Pavlina’s website in the forums. Thank you.

{ Reply }

David October 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Hi John, thanks for the story. I hear it’s much better now!

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Shaun October 8, 2009 at 2:22 pm

It’s sort of like Feng Shui. An organized, colorful, healthy-looking environment empowers a healthy life-style. It’s really amazing how much our subconscious is affected by it.

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David October 8, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Hey, I think you’re on to something. I can’t put my finger on what it is about Feng Shui-ed rooms, but there is definitely something to it. I had forgotten about Feng Shui, time to look into it again.

{ Reply }

Thomas October 8, 2009 at 8:13 pm

The point is a good one but for some reason it doesn’t quite sit right with me.

It reminds of something Henry David Thoreau wrote when comparing people living in houses to Native Americans living in wigwams.

If you live in a house it will inevitably collect dust and thus you must spend time keeping it dust free. But if you live in a wigwam it doesn’t collect dust and so you don’t spend time dusting it.

We shouldn’t have to fight against ourselves, but we do.

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David October 8, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Hi Thomas. There are different viewpoints, but no matter which way I look at it, I think there is always going to be friction between our nature and what is healthiest for us. I think that internal fight we humans experience is inevitable; if you follow every impulse, it won’t lead you anywhere good. The incongruence between our nature and our well-being is what some people call the human condition. Good point, it’s quite a philosophical issue when you get down to it.

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Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 8, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Although I never really thought of it this way, your article is absolutely on point. That first blemish really does make a big difference…. in communities and in individual lives. Wonderful post. I can’t wait to pass it on.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..50 Regrets and the Life Lessons to Learn From Them =-.

{ Reply }

David October 8, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Thanks Nea, I really appreciate that :)

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Walter October 8, 2009 at 9:33 pm

I remember the book Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s where I’ve heard of such theory. It’s a mystery why we are influenced by even a little blemish that we make a bigger mess. It is such an interesting phenomenon about our nature. :-)
.-= Walter´s last blog ..Crippling habits people embrace =-.

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David October 8, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Hi Walter. It is so interesting to discover some of the hidden forces that have been affecting our lives the whole time. Who knows what we haven’t discovered yet.

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Tim October 9, 2009 at 8:52 am

David:

I really enjoyed this post and you make some really great points that I agree with. Like some of the previous comments, I also agree that it might be a bit of oversimplification to describe the Broken Window Effect, but I think you are onto something. You really bring up some great examples of getting into good habits only to “get off track” later on.

My biggest challenge these days is clutter. I can spend a few hours of maniacal cleaning only to bring in more “stuff” the next day. I’m making progress with clearing the clutter and will take some time to get there.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..National Poetry Day Poem: What Teachers Make =-.

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David October 9, 2009 at 4:05 pm

You and me both. I’ve always been a bit cluttersome. But I also think I’m making progress, in the long-run sort of way :)

My best strategy has been owning less stuff. After watching a bit of “Hoarders” last night, I feel not bad about myself.

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Jared October 9, 2009 at 9:16 am

David,
I love this post. Thanks for much.

“Though clutter, disorder, and crime appear to be contagious, they’re really not. It’s the mindset behind those behaviors that spreads. Good neighborhoods make you feel proud, fortunate, and respectful. Bad neighborhoods make you feel worried, suspicious, and disdainful.”

Great stuff! These ideals are visible everywhere, like in sports when playing a known competitor who is less talented, teams tend to play worse or the other team plays better.

As a recovering alcoholic, I can so relate to the drinking example. It’s the engine, not the caboose that kills you.

I’ve also experienced this with thought. Negative thoughts that I may not even really pay attention to. Like if I tell myself I’m gong to eat better or work out tomorrow… tomorrow comes and I don’t follow through. As a result I add a little notch to my low self-esteem pole. These things add up over time and then I wonder why I’m in a funk. I try to verbalize and share these things with those around me (my wife), and my feelings of self-disappointment. So when I’m being hard on myself others can help me out. If I say something negative about myself like “man, that was stupid you idiot,” my wife’s response is usually, “hey, don’t talk to my friend that way!” It’s nice. I just have to remember to be my own cheerleader from time-to-time.

My wife and I committed to the 45 Day Fitness Challenge started by Craig over at BoomVerse, and committed to working out everyday. We joined a gym and have been there everyday except Wednesday, which was to be a rest day, but I’m really against the “rest” days. So we’re committed to at least 30 minutes of walking or exercise even on rest days. One day makes it easier for another, broken window!
.-= Jared´s last blog ..The Key to World Peace: Children and The Media =-.

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David October 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Always love your comments, Jared. Sports is another great example. I see it every sunday this time of year, both in the fans and in the players. Once a defense makes a big mistake, they very often lose their composure and more mistakes follow.

Good luck with the fitness challenge!

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Dayne | TheHappySelf.com October 9, 2009 at 9:18 am

Yet again another great post David and I LOVE the title. How can I not read what you have to say after reading that title? :) Anyway, I love what you had to say here. It really proves that the smallest amount of changes can affect the psychology and behavior of not only ourselves, but those around us (society).

Thanks for sharing!
Dayne
.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..6 Songs That Move My Soul =-.

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David October 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Hi Dayne. Thanks. One real immediate effect of the principle is smiling. I hate to admit it but it’s tough to really indulge in negative thinking when you’re smiling, and it makes for better reactions from others too.

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Keli May 3, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Hey, that post leaves me feielng foolish. Kudos to you!

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Roberta October 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm

David, love reading your posts they always make me think if I am doing (or not) x,y, and z and why or why not. I have a tendency to be very organized, but then I have that one day and it all goes to hell, and that is when the “policing” comes in. I am in the “policing my broken windows” stage at this point. So reading this post is a good refresher and push for me to not just police but to act.

Hope you had a Happy Birthday!
.-= Roberta´s last blog ..Change =-.

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David October 10, 2009 at 8:24 pm

I have a tendency to be perpetually almost organized. One day I will cross the threshold. Until then I’ll just tell others what they should do. :)

The birthday was great, thanks for the nice wishes.

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Ian | Quantum Learning October 11, 2009 at 8:19 am

Yet another superb post, David. I recognise this in my own life – I just need to leave the washing up for later and next I look it’s piled up and my apartment is a mess!

I even have a real broken window. I broke it 2 years ago when I was decorating. Never got round to fix it.
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..For What Greatness Were You Born? =-.

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David October 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I have some of the same habits Ian. There are times when I definitely crack the window on purpose just so I no longer have something pristine to lose. :(

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Daphne October 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm

This is a really interesting post! I tend to be really compulsive about “policing for broken windows”. I look around my space and I like everything to have its place. In our personal lives, I think everyone has to figure out their own system (some people have no trouble finding what they’re looking for even when surrounded by clutter). In public and shared spaces though, I can definitely see the argument for keeping a certain level of cleanliness. Our surroundings can have a profound impact on the quality of our time, much like angry voices are much less pleasant to be around than happy laughter. Thank you for sharing this.
.-= Daphne´s last blog ..Own Your Way =-.

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