Jul 01 / Simcha

Fixing Our “Broken Windows”

windowEnvironmental cues tend to shape our actions because they subtly license us to behave poorly.  And perhaps vice versa.

The linkage between social order and crime was demonstrated by the “Broken Window” theory, put forth by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982  article for The Atlantic Monthly.

The theorists demonstrated that people who are otherwise well-behaved are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods with broken windows; if the broken windows in a building were not repaired, people were more likely to break additional windows in the structure. And that, in turn, would encourage more vandalism.

Kelling and Wilson based their arguments partly on research carried out by Philip Zombardo, a Stanford psychologist who, in 1969, parked abandoned cars in the Bronx, New York, and Palo Alto, California, to record what would happen to the vehicles. Once a small amount of damage was inititated on the cars, area residents began to attack the vehicles, inflicting substantial damage.

Kelling and Wilson used their findings that “disorder breeds more disorder” as a lesson for law enforcement and for community leaders; they urged them to respond quickly to even the smallest signs of disorder — abandoned properties, uncollected trash, vagrancy, rowdy behavior.

Lessons derived from the Broken Windows theory moved beyond the realm of crime prevention.  Business and technology innovators, for example, suggest that rather than focusing solely on large-scale objectives and expensive new break-throughs, we should work to identify smaller-scale improvements (repairs of broken windows) that might be made to existing products or systems.

In a more personal vein, the notion of “broken windows” gets me thinking about small ways in which we can “order the disorder” in our lives to help us feel more in control.  For some of us, that disorder might be physical (an ever-messy kitchen; disoroganized files), while for others it might be relational or spiritual (troubled relationships;  destructive behaviors; unfulfilling routines and commitments; time spent with people who don’t make us feel good).

Keeping with the metaphor, the impact of fixing our “broken windows” for the sake of our own happiness also creates a ripple effect on those with whom we interact.  In demonstrating more respect for ourselves and for the direction of our lives, we are more likely attract more positive energy — in the form of encouragement, support and opportunity — from those who surround us.

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See also:   How We Are Like Chameleons