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Yes, But Does it Work?


There is a pile of filthy pots and pans in the corner of the kitchen, and it’s tearing us apart.

For six weeks I have been living in a hostel in Te Puke, New Zealand, the kiwifruit capital of the world. Te Puke is not a tourist attraction, so travelers generally only come here to spend a month or two working in the orchards, then they hit the road again. This means there is very little accommodation in town, because it is difficult to make a hostel pay for itself with virtually no tourism.

I am staying in a bunkhouse at the edge of town, with about 30 other long-term guests. Because the turnover is low for a hostel, friendships have time to form and there is a warm social vibe among the guests. But a tense relationship exists between us and the owners, and it has something to do with cookware.

All around, the place is not particularly spiffy. I don’t want to run it down too much — I mean, it is my home for the time being and I have a healthy fondness for it, but let’s just say it is distinctly less clean than any other hostel I’ve been in. And I’ve been in a few.

The epicenter of the uncleanliness is the far corner of kitchen. Twenty-four hours a day there is a fly-ridden greasy heap of dirty cookware. Pots, pans, spatulas — slick with filmy residue, caked with dried sauces, or worse.

A Monster Born of Good Intentions

It’s quite… uh… inappropriate. It’s the last thing you want to see while you’re preparing food. By anyone’s standards it shouldn’t be there. But with a bit of thought I can see how this monster came to be.

Every morning, the owner dutifully but unhappily cleans the kitchen, scrubbing the floor, sinks, counters and elements. He does a fine job of it too. But he will not clean pots and pans. Out of protest he puts them all on a disgusting, teetering pile in the far corner, which has been there since I arrived.

I can see where they’re coming from. Every night, pots and pans are left uncleaned on the counter, or in the sink with bloated instant noodles in them. A remarkable number of people don’t clean up after themselves here, even by hostel standards. By cleaning the pots for them, it’s almost as if they would be saying, “It’s okay not to wash them, someone will do it for you.” Naturally they don’t want to send that message.

The thing is though, all of the guests here are from the same population of backpackers that I’ve seen in all the other hostels I’ve stayed in here. Why do they make such a spectacular mess here, but not elsewhere? Obviously it’s not just a random spell of extra-sloppy backpackers than happen to be here at the moment. It’s a problem with the policy.

By refusing to clean the pots and pans, they are making the problem worse. It’s an understandable way to respond — I mean who wants to clean up after people who won’t do it for themselves? — but it is not an intelligent approach to the problem.

Other hostels have cleaning staff that will clean up the mess every day, no matter how bad it is. There are always a few people who leave dishes out. But I’ve seen the kitchen at the end of the night in many hostels, and it’s never as bad as this one.

A Different Approach

Recently the owners took a ten-day vacation in Fiji, left their live-in babysitter in charge of reception and maintenance, and one of my fellow guests in charge of cleaning (for a free bed.) Both did an excellent job and the staff-guest dynamic brightened considerably.

One day I had a long chat on the porch with my friend (the one who did the cleaning.) She told me she wanted to clean the pots and pans in the corner, but had been left with instructions not to. She agreed when I told her that I thought that pile of pots and pans is the reason people don’t clean up after themselves. So I explained the Broken Window Theory.

In case you didn’t read “How to Fight Crime By Making Your Bed“, the Broken Window Theory states that something in an immaculate state greatly inhibits people from messing with it, while something that is already in a compromised state only attracts more disrespect. People are naturally more respectful of something that is clean and tidy, so they are less likely to make a mess of it, and more likely to clean it up if they do. New York authorities employed this principle to help them reduce crime dramatically in the 1990s, by persistently cleaning up vandalism as soon as it was discovered.

When I went to make dinner the next day, I was stunned at how clean the kitchen was. There were a few dishes left out, a few drips of sauce here and there, the odd macaroni elbow in the drain, but it was far from disgusting.

Most notably, there was no pile of dirty pots and pans. It actually looked strange without it.

As I ate, I watched people making dinner. It was a completely different scene than the chaotic spectacle I was used to. People were washing things up, checking if they’d left anything behind. They were moving slower. Even known mess-makers were cleaning out their pots.

When the owners returned they dismissed my friend, and the next day the kitchen was disgusting again. The greasy pile reappeared, and is still there.

Bad policy.

The Two Philosophies

The same dynamic happens in many parts of society, but two issues in particular come to mind: how to respond to drug addicts and how to educate young people about sex.

Of course, most people would be a lot more comfortable if nobody was addicted to drugs, only responsible adults had sex, and everyone left the cookware sparkling every time.

But we’re human, and that’s never going to happen.

We’re never going to completely eradicate problem behaviors. No amount of drug abuse education could ever completely halt drug abuse. There will always be a certain percentage of the populace that will do things that can be harmful to themselves and others, and which no consequence can prevent.

There are two fundamental approaches:

1) reject the behavior and avoid validating it in any way, in the hopes that people will eventually “get the message”

2) figure out the best way to reduce the harm associated with that behavior, given that we do not know how to stop the behavior completely

Blogger Gala Darling just published a post about the dramatically different messages people get about sex depending on who it was that educated them. It illustrates two completely different philosophies about sex ed, and the results:

Reader: I am a freshman in college. 18 years old. Like most other people, I was raised to believe ‘sex is bad.’ I had to take several required courses in high school whose purpose was that of convincing my peers and I that sex is bad and will give you chlamydia and eventually kill you. We were shown pictures of disfigured and disgusting genitals that had fallen victims of numerous stds and were persuaded that this, too, would one day become our genitals if we were to take part in sexual intercourse before marriage. Long story short, we were manipulated into a state of being scared shitless about sex.

Gala: For all its imperfections, I am so glad I was raised in New Zealand where we are given realistic information about sex in school. The way they teach it is, “We know you’re going to do it, so here’s what you need to know”. We were taught about the risks, how to prevent STIs & we discussed the positive effects of having sex too.

Realistic, that’s the word.

When it comes to drugs, the United States is the poster child for the utter inadequacy of the first approach. Nearly one percent of the US population lives behind bars, the vast majority non-violent drug offenders.

The idea is to punish people into smartening up. If they aren’t smartening up enough, then we must not be punishing enough. If some people aren’t “getting the message” then they lengthen sentences, and a certain contingent of the public cheers because they are “finally getting tough on crime.” It doesn’t occur to them that it may not actually be helpful.

Holland’s famously “soft” drug policy has seen much lower rates of drug use than the US. It’s based on the principle of harm reduction, rather than eternally swinging for home run by insisting on total eradication of the problem behavior.

Moralistic policies such as the Drug War approach (or any sort of approach with “War” in the title) are fueled by character judgments and pedantry. It’s not difficult to see that the underlying assertion is that people who don’t do X are better people than those who do.

The Message Isn’t Enough

When someone brings up the obvious point that many people will still engage in certain behaviors whether you reject them or not — and that therefore we should account for the continuation of that behavior in our policies — the argument is always the same: “But it sends the wrong message! We can’t let them think it’s okay.” So drug addicts go to jail instead of treatment. Kids have sex anyway, even though their school’s PTA doesn’t believe in condom dispensers. And some people still can’t be bothered to clean the wok if nobody else does. But at least we didn’t say it was “okay.”

Can you see the difference between these two ideologies: one is based on results, and the other is not. So what is it based on?

“Sending the wrong message” is an understandable fear, as is the fear of validating underage sex or encouraging people to leave their kitchen messes for others to clean, but maybe fear (or any other emotion) is not a sensible basis for policymaking.

I know the owner fears that cleaning up the mess-makers’ pots will encourage more mess-making, but everyone else saw the superior effect of the other policy, and clearly his standoffish response is creating the opposite of what he wants.

Your own policies — not just your positions on public issues, but your established ways of responding to undesirable behavior from others — do they make sense? Or are they just emotional responses that don’t really help anything? Maybe your message is clear, but so what? Does it make a difference, that’s what matters.

When people do things you wish they wouldn’t do, how do you respond? And what happens as a result? Those two questions can dislodge some long-standing messes. Often we get attached to a particular approach because it satisfies our emotional response, but that doesn’t mean it actually helps you or anybody else.

Is there a big greasy mess somewhere in your life that could use a fresh approach?


Photo by blmurch

Hayden Tompkins April 22, 2010 at 7:13 am

I’m just curious… Did you ever consider cleaning the wok, er, pile of dishes? Did any of the other hostel guests? If not, is that any different than the stance the owner took?

Although, according to “Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy” that pile of dishes should have been an SEP (“Someone Else’s Problem) and therefore ‘invisible’!

David April 22, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Yes, I did when I arrived. I used to always clean the one I wanted to use, then a few more while my meal cooked. I reasoned that eventually I’d make in through the pile. But new pots and pans appeared every day and it was clear I was not getting anywhere.

And maybe the guests did take on the same stance (SEP) but no matter how they respond they do not get to decide the hostel’s policy on cleaning pots and pans, unless they are willing to clean the kitchen every single day — which is a bit ridiculous, given that the guests are the ones paying for reasonable hostel services. Even if someone was that keen, they are just a guest, and as soon as they checked out, it would reappear.

Whether the filthy pile exists still comes down to the policy decision by the owner. No matter how many times a good samaritan guest cleans them, there will always be a few pots left out, and the owner would always put them in the corner, unless he decides not to let it accumulate.

Cole April 22, 2010 at 8:49 am

It’s true, punishment can be observed to be ineffective in a wide variety of situations – e.g., the penal system, child-rearing, employee performance management, post-war reparations…

Still, the differences between American society and the society in Holland are many, which would make it difficult to assess the kinds of changes we would observe if Holland’s drug laws were transplanted to the States.

Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

David April 22, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Hi Cole. That is true, there are obviously other factors at play. I kept them outside the scope of the article, because I think the ineffectiveness of US drug policy is quite obvious. As for transplanting them, yes the results would be unpredictable. Policy doesn’t usually change so dramatically though, it evolves.

Chelsea April 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm

This is this first time I’ve heard of the “Broken Window” theory, and it makes absolute sense! You can ask my bedroom!

When the owner first came back and the place was clean, did people start cleaning up after themselves? Or did they not do it because the owner (with what seems to be a bit of a bitter attitude) was back? Or did the owner’s lack of helping in cleaning up allow it to snowball again? Also, has the owner said anything directly about people cleaning up? I’m currently training for management at my job, and I usually tell people things directly and honestly (althought I’ve been told I’m still a bit too timid in my approaches). But I also found that to be the best way to get things done, straight and simple. I guess doing it that way may or may not offend people, and I -have- found that sometimes people take it as an option and not a command, but I think its easier than almost playing games with people, putting them in (messy) situations and seeing how they react.

David April 22, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Hi Chelsea.

I don’t know exactly what happened in the hours after the owner returned.

The owners have made remarks (and posted signs) about how poorly the guests seem to clean up, and it sounds like there is quite a history of it.

Confronting individuals straight up might be effective, but the group of guests is constantly in rotation, so it would have to become a regular policy. It might help things, but it would certainly create a lot of tension. I think the Broken Window approach works really well in other hostels (even this one, evidently) so why not do it here?

Tim April 22, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Man, it really sucks when your life IS a big greasy mess, not that mine is or is anywhere close. It sure FEELS like it sometimes.

I like your words. And I don’t want to be greasy.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..Numbers Don’t Matter =-.

David April 23, 2010 at 2:26 am

Haha “Greasy” is such a greasy word, isn’t it?

Vincent Nguyen April 23, 2010 at 1:19 am

Interesting analogies between the different approaches in your post David.

It goes to show that the “iron fist” approach usually is not always the best way to discipline nor teach us how to be better people or improve our behaviors.
On the contrary, I would agree more with the “subtle yet more philosophical” approach, which allows us to reflect and take positive action towards a solution.
Instead of going for the harsh severe approach, which restricts us literally (prison) and mentally (psychological scare tactics).
Having said that every situation is unique
.-= Vincent Nguyen´s last blog ..How should we Recycle, Refocus, Redesign our Lifestyle? =-.

David April 23, 2010 at 2:27 am

Hi Vinny. Yes every situation is unique. I guess my argument here is just that our emotions often don’t tell us the smart thing to do. That’s a recurring theme on Raptitude.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 23, 2010 at 6:49 am

Over a longer period of time it would be interesting to see how long before the dishes piled up again. It’s weird how adults need “parents” before they look after themselves again for a while.

In my home, if people don’t chip in with the chores~ I don’t do them. That bathroom got so grimy, I wore my flip flops. Finally, the Czech and Australian males did part each, the Korean female continued to do nothing~ so I explained that rent was going up each week that chores were not done.

My usual way of responding to undesirable behaviour is
a) “No Thank You” —> Their confusion/calming down
b) “There’s the door” —> Behaviour changes. every. time.
c) “I’m not your parent” —> “You just don’t care”
d) Head butt —> “You crazy bitch!” as they run

And I think we as a Western society need to talk more about the differences between drug use, drug abuse and drug addict. Am sure heaps of those zero tolerance peoples enjoy something on the rocks after work. Different strokes for functional folks.

David April 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Some controlled experiments would be interesting.

How often does it come down to the “head butt” stage? ;)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 23, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Rarely ~:-) It freks with the arthritis in my neck.

I do not encourage violence, but my Shadow bitch is there for a reason~ if another wants to dance that dance and try to violate my boundaries ~ I may not win but it will get ugly.

I more likely state it so another gets the heads up to the level of anger I feel at that moment.
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..This Week’s R & R Site Highlight! =-.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 23, 2010 at 5:25 pm
David April 24, 2010 at 4:00 am

That’s a great site! Passive-Aggressive Notes :)

Cheryl F April 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Because I couldn’t stand the mess and wouldn’t be able to sleep, I would have cleaned up the mess, but then been really angry about it. I suppose both of those are wrong.

David April 25, 2010 at 3:21 pm

What would you do if you cleaned it up and the mess appeared again?

Lisa April 25, 2010 at 2:39 am

I remember learning about a similar psychology experiment except with littering. Very interesting, I never thought to apply it to larger scale problems such as drug use or sex education.
At my work, it’s actually in someone’s job description to keep the kitchen clean, including dishes, but even though I know someone else will clean up after me, I can’t bring myself to leave an empty cup in an otherwise clean sink and so end up washing it myself, so it really does work. Of course, i saw the opposite effect in college, where 1 roommate didn’t do any dishes and soon none of the roommates did any dishes.
Great post as usual!

David April 25, 2010 at 3:24 pm

There is that “resentment effect” where if one person doesn’t clean up, others reason that they shouldn’t either.

Darren April 25, 2010 at 7:06 am

Before we had a dishwasher at work in the staff kitchen, I used to wash the huge piles of dishes every day. It was frustrating because the co-workers would leave dishes, despite the various signs posted about stating: “Please wash your own dishes after you use them.” I finally stopped. My job is in a residential facility for guys who lack basic life skills; if we couldn’t keep our own staff areas clean, what right do we have to tell the clients to do their chores and clean their spaces? It took a few years, but we ended up getting a dishwasher, so it’s no longer a problem.

David April 25, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Yeah signs are easily ignored. Maybe an “Intervention” would be successful if there were only one or two leaving the dishes. “Jim, we’re no longer going to enable your mess-making. Things have to change, and today is the day.”

Carrie April 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Who are you? How old? I love reading your blogs, i love your 88 things. Thought provoking and always a great lesson. Thanks for sharing.

David April 25, 2010 at 3:31 pm

My name is David and I’m 88 years old.

More info here: About Raptitude
.-= David´s last blog ..Yes, But Does it Work? =-.

negligentvendors April 26, 2010 at 3:53 pm

“My name is David I’m 88 years old.” -Ha! I love it! :)

Seriously though, you wrote:

“Your own policies — not just your positions on public issues, but your established ways of responding to undesirable behavior from others — do they make sense? Or are they just emotional responses that don’t really help anything? Maybe your message is clear, but so what? Does it make a difference, that’s what matters.

When people do things you wish they wouldn’t do, how do you respond? And what happens as a result? Those two questions can dislodge some long-standing messes.”

Yes, this is great… Now practically speaking how do I apply this when dealing with a controlling spouse? It gets very tedious when someone close to you is constantly saying that in no certain terms should you think or act differently than them. This, in my particular case, is met with emotional responses fighting for my independence and individuality. And it essentially gets me no where. It angers my spouse and only compounds the messy greasy problems between us!

I’m being a bit vague here I know. I’ll give a quick one sided example for whatever it’s worth: I am prone to leaving post-it notes in my books to jot quick notes down. Simple enough, right? Now, notice I said “my” books. Spouse picked up aforesaid item, flicked through and spotted the post-it. I was then berated for putting something that had glue on it on a book page. It could turn the page colors said my spouse! Now my initial reaction was pure annoyance, my god the spouse is off it again! I curtly yelled, it’s my book put it down on the desk, never mind! In which I was swiftly met with rage from my spouse being accused of showing disrespect firstly to my belongings, as if I’m a child and then secondly to my spouse for saying it was my book rudely. This small argument then snowballed into one hell of an avalanche that brought up old arguments and neither one of us knows how to fight fairly. And we have had many such arguments over the years. It is taking a toll on us both and we are surely heading for divorce.

Any suggestions? I know you don’t have the cure for what ails me, namely my failing marriage but would be interested in how I can better approach my spouse given his controlling nature and my sensitive one.

And yes I know how lame it is to seek marriage advice from a stranger but at this point I’m willing to give anything a go that will help me deal with my spouse less emotionally. And given that private counseling is completely off the table for various reasons, I’m afraid Dr. Raptitude will have to suffice for the moment.

David April 26, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Hi negligentvendors.

I’m definitely not qualified to give marriage advice. My only advice is to find someone who is.

As for emotional responses, meditation is one way to get a more objective look at what your thoughts are doing and where they come from. I’m sure a lot of long-standing habits are at play for both of you. With meditation you can learn to anticipate your triggers and just let them pass without taking the bait.

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