They did studies in average middle-class neighborhoods where they would leave something out that could easily be stolen - such as a bike, or an attractive pot of flowers, or a tire pump or something. In some cases, they made sure that the area looked very clean and respectable and in other cases, they would have a broken window or some graffiti on the wall. Then they would watch and document whether or not the item would be stolen.
The results were very definitive. In the cases where there some kind of disarray or where it looked like someone had already broken the law in some way, the item was much more likely to be stolen. But in the cases where the area was looking very nice, the rate of crime went down dramatically.
I have to say, stuff like this just fascinates me and I wish more people took it more seriously. If people really understood all this stuff, Mayors and Police Commissioners would spend more money on clean-up crews in the inner city and less on police and probably end up with a much safer place for people to live. I'd love to be able to try an experiment like that.
If you've ever seen the movie Stand By Me, one of the first things the new Principal does is to eliminate the graffiti and clean up the conditions at the school. This is one of several factors that creates the good behavior in the students.
Now, the question is how can you put the Broken Window Effect to work in your house?
If you leave one pair of shoes in the hall, how quickly are they going to be joined by other pairs of shoes? If you leave one dish on the counter, how likely is there to be a pile of them by the end of the day? I really think that clutter breeds more clutter in the same way that ugliness and urban decay increases crime.
So, what's the solution? I think you might need to implement a zero-tolerance policy in some areas of your home.
In my house, for instance, the entryway is off-limits to clutter of any kind. I made a special point of setting up a formal living room right there so that people would see the nicest area of the house the moment they step through the door.
The kids do tend to want to leave clutter there in the form of bookbags, shoes, coats, etc. Or their camping gear when they get home from a trip or something. But it doesn't stay there for very long.
The minute I come through the door, if I see stuff that shouldn't be there, I am calling people to come and get that stuff out of there. And if I get that "in a minute, Mom" stuff, I am not at all shy about removing it to the garage, the front yard, or wherever else I deem appropriate. That's how a zero-tolerance policy works.
I don't think you can manage that with the whole house. Like the old saying goes, you have to pick your battles. But there's no reason that you can't designate a couple of high-visibility spots to be your zero tolerance zones. It's just a matter of how many spots you have the time and patience to defend. Because you will have to defend it - more frequently at first as the family tries to sound out how serious you are about the new policy.
But if you keep up on it, they'll go along with the program without too much fuss. Try it and see. Then report back here and let me know how it goes for you.