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Raw Concepts: Broken Window Relationship Theory


In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, there is a discussion of policing tactic based on a social science theory called Broken Windows Theory. Picture you own a house, and you allow the windows of this house to remain broken. Other people who live in and visit this house will believe that they too can break windows in your house, because you give the impression that you don’t mind the windows in your house being broken. Furthermore, they may feel free to escalate and do even bigger acts of vandalism to your house. There are three major effects of allowing broken windows in a house. One is more obvious and has already been partially discussed: the fact that people don’t respect your house. The second is less obvious but equally important: people don’t respect you as an individual for allowing your house to be disrespected like that. They may act like they’re having fun with you while the two of you vandalize your house together, and on the surface it may seem like a bonding activity, or that you’re winning them over by letting them vandalize your house, but the whole time you’re engaging in this activity together they’re actually losing more and more respect for you. Third, people start losing respect for your neighborhood as a whole, because there is a house with broken windows in the neighborhood. And the more houses with broken windows a neighborhood has over time, the lower the status of that neighborhood. So broken windows hurts the standing of the house itself, of the people who own and live within the house, and of the neighborhood the house is in.

These general Broken Window ideas were reflected in various urban planning and policing initiatives during the late 20th century. As described in the Broken Windows Wikipedia entry:

A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book’s authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.

It was also specifically used in New York City under Rudy Giuliani:

In 1990, William J. Bratton became head of the New York City Transit Police. Bratton described George L. Kelling as his “intellectual mentor”, and implemented zero tolerance of fare-dodging, easier arrestee processing methods and background checks on all those arrested. Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani hired Bratton as his police commissioner who adopted the strategy more widely in New York City after Giuliani’s election in 1993, under the rubrics of “quality of life” and “zero tolerance“.

Influenced heavily by Kelling and Wilson’s article, Giuliani was determined to put the theory into action. He set out to prove that New York’s infamous image of being too big, too unruly, too diverse, too broke to manage, – was, in fact, manageable.

Thus, Giuliani’s “zero-tolerance” roll out was part of an interlocking set of wider reforms, crucial parts of which had been underway since 1985. Bratton had the police more strictly enforce the law against subway fare evasion, public drinking, urination, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men” who had been wiping windshields of stopped cars and demanding payment. Near the beginning, Bratton received criticism for his work for going after these “petty” crimes. The general statement towards this was “Why care about panhandlers, hookers, or graffiti artists when there are more serious crimes to be dealt with in the city?” The main notion of the broken window theory is that small crimes can make way for larger crimes. If the “petty” criminals are often overlooked and given space to do what they want, then their level of criminality might escalate from petty crimes to more serious offenses. Bratton’s work is to attack while the offenders are still green, as it would prevent an escalation of criminal acts in the future. According to the 2001 study of crime trends in New York by George Kelling and William Sousa, rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly, and continued to drop for the following ten years.

I think the Broken Windows theory is also valuable to apply in personal relationships, whether professional, platonic, or romantic. There are two major ways I can illustrate for using Broken Windows in relationships.

The first way Broken Windows theory helps in relationships is when dealing with emotional vampires. I call this Abusive Broken Windows. Supposedly, if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you put a frog in a pan with room temperature water and then turn the heat up very gradually until it hits boiling, that same frog will remain in the pan until it cooks to death, never jumping out. Emotional vampires are like that with their victims: they don’t do the egregious boundary violations and abuses right away. They test what they can get away with by starting with smaller violations. Many people, because these violations are not that major and because they want to keep the peace and don’t want to make a big deal over what appears minor, often let these boundary violations slide, or if they do protest, they are too quick to forgive. This emboldens the emotional vampire to repeat and escalate the boundary violations, until they gradually reach a level of boundary violations that they likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with earlier in the relationship, and just like the frog is now willing to tolerate the boiling water when the temperature is raised slowly, the emotional vampire’s victim is now willing to tolerate the new disrespect levels when the abuse is escalated slowly.

By not protesting and repairing the emotional broken windows, the victim has allowed the situation to go out of hand.

The second way Broken Windows helps in relationships is among friends, family, and coworkers, and is somewhat less obvious. I call these “Friendly” Broken Windows. I notice, for example, that many guys who are friends, when meeting a group of girls, or even just one girl, will be quick to playfully diss each other while kissing up to the girl. The dissing and kissing up can manifest in many minor ways. For example, if the girl makes a joke about one of the guys in the group, the other guys may laugh a little too hard and long at the joke, in a manner far out of proportion the how clever the joke actually was. If the girl is rude to one of the group, the others in the group may concur and join with the girl in criticizing the other guy. Sometimes the other guys may initiate the mockery of one of their group and encourage the girls to join in. Sometimes the guys will be self-deprecating and mock themselves for the amusement of the girls. Another people manifestation is when guys use dissing each other as a way to break the ice with and score cheap points with a woman they just met. These are all examples of broken windows.

I noticed that guys are far more likely to engage in “Friendly” Broken Windows than women. Like, if a strange woman is to make fun of a member of a group of guys, the other guys are far more likely to let it slide or even pile on than when the situation is  reversed and a strange man makes fun of a member of a group of women. Men are far more likely to throw each other and themselves under the bus to impress strange women than vice versa.

At first I thought that this was a sign that women have much stronger loyalty to each other than men do, but I’ve encountered so many women who are catty and backstabbing to each other in friendships, especially behind each other’s backs, that I can’t say that women are any more inherently loyal to each other than men are, even if they are more likely to present a united front publicly and in social encounters with strangers.

Then I realized: it’s not a gender thing, but rather, a status thing. When someone is of lower status than you, you are less likely to do things to win their approval, especially if those things involve throwing yourself or your friends under the bus. Since in society, the default position in social encounters is that women on average are assumed to have higher social status than men until proven otherwise, most of the time it is the men who are breaking their own windows. In most male-female encounters, conventional wisdom is that the man must “win” the girl, that he must impress her, that he must show his value. Her value is simply assumed, especially if she’s at all attractive. (I call this the Assumed Value Fallacy, and I’ll discuss it in a later post.)

The group that socially breaks its own windows only does so because it perceives itself to have lower status than the group it’s trying to impress. And ironically, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because once they start breaking their own windows, they immediately communicate that belief about their lower status to the other group, and end up making that lower status a reality and cementing it. For example, if you take your average group of guys who engage in Friendly Broken Windows strategy with pretty girls, and have a fat, ugly girl try to diss one of them, they will blow her out of the water similar to how a group of pretty, thin girls would shut down most guys who tried to disrespect one of their group. It’s not so much about in-group loyalty as an absolute, but rather about in-group loyalty relative to the perceived status of the other group. The higher the perceived status of the other group, the lower the in-group loyalty becomes. And since a group of women is almost always presumed to have higher status than a group of men, it is almost always the men who show less in-group loyalty and break their own windows.

Similarly, I’ve noticed that in situations where the man or group of men is presumed to be of higher status, either because of Adonis-level looks, money, celebrity status, or some combination of the aforementioned, a group of women will behave not that differently than your average group of men does when faced with an attractive female. They will break windows within the group like crazy. The reason we rarely see it is because we rarely see the social status dynamics tip in the man’s favor.

[If you doubt that a group of men are on average presumed to have less status than group of women, compare a group of men going out on the town versus a group of women. The group of men will be turned away from all the top nightlife spots, or forced to stand on line and wait an ungodly amount of time, or forced to purchase bottle service. Meanwhile, pretty, thin women will be whisked right in like royalty, with no one even knowing who they are. For a group of guys to get similar treatment, one or all of them would probably need to be a celebrity or known to be a big spender.]

Just like with all broken windows situations, the same three effects occur: people lose respect for your house [in this case, whoever you're specifically throwing under the bus], you as an individual [what kind of person treats their friend like that?], and your group as a whole [your whole group suffers and looks weak].

However, sometimes the behavior does seem to work. Some people do seem to like when you break windows, and are attracted to such behavior. I’m sure everyone can think of times when they broke windows within their group and won someone over by throwing their friend under the bus in a good-natured (or not so good-natured) way or by self-deprecation. The problem is, this is a strategy where even when it works, it fails. Because more often than not, anyone you attract by such a method is usually going to be a shitty person anyway. Any worthwhile person is going to be turned off by how your group is conducting itself in order to impress them, whether it’s the person who is getting thrown under the bus, the person doing the throwing, or the group as a whole for tolerating such a dynamic. It communicates extreme weakness, and since like attracts like, it will attract extreme weakness as well, either in the form of a codependent who wants to commiserate with weakness, or a Cluster B Vampire who wants to overcompensate for their own submerged feelings of inferiority by finding someone more obviously self-loathing to dominate and exploit.

The people you attract into your life by allowing broken windows are never people who improve things for the better. It’s similar to the people in society who not only tolerate but are actually prefer blighted neighborhood with lots of literal broken windows and dilapidated structures: they’re usually not positive people.

The point is, don’t allow other people to break your windows, because they usually won’t stop with just that, and don’t break your own windows to impress other people, because you’ll drive away worthwhile people and attract parasites, takers, and energy vampires.

Recommended Reading:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. A great read that has a wonderful chapter on Broken Windows Theory as used in urban development and community policing strategy.

21 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Broken Window Relationship Theory”

  1. I’m glad you’re back. I missed your writing. Thanks for the great theory. I made this observation, too.

  2. I’m glad your back too. Interesting article. Not to be a dick but I wonder if broken window theory was true, wasn’t it later proved that it was simply due to a greater number of police officers? [the reduction in crime].

    I’m also not convinced that the average man’s tendency to throw his friends under the bus (and the fact that nightclubs will let pretty women in before handsome men) proves that our society generally values women more or that they are higher status in an average situation.

  3. Cameron – I’m sure you’ve heard of parties called “sausage fests” as a disparaging term, by both men and women. Have you ever heard of an equivalent complaint in regards to too many women, such as a “fish fest?” Neither men or women seem to complain as much about too many women being at a club. Or have you seen a heterosexual nightspot get acclaim for how many men it can attract? The amount of women in attendance is far more crucial to a party’s success than the amount of women. That’s why there are Ladies’ Nights. Also, it’s not just that pretty women can get preferential treatment to handsome men. I’ll take it further and say it’s more that I think even mildly attractive women can get as good or better treatment than extremely attractive men.

    A man is something you have to become. A woman is just something you are. This is why men have so much performance anxiety, and I don’t just mean the sexual kind. I mean in career, athletic prowess, everything. This is why you will hear terms like “man up” or “be a man” but there’s no female equivalent to those same concepts. Tell a woman to “woman up” or “be a woman” and people will look at you like you’re crazy. Men have to gain and climb to have value whereas women mostly have to just avoid losing value or conceal flaws (don’t gain weight, use makeup).

  4. Right, and in night clubs (and probably bars generally) women have a higher social status than men. I agree with this statement.

    My problem is with your claim that the preferential treatment women receive when they go out clubbing is due to their being held in higher regard generally by society.

    Here are some alternative explanations:

    - women spend more money on average in nightclubs than men and get into fights less frequently, so nightclub owners preferentially “recruit” them
    - the (predominantly male) bouncers favour attractive girls because…..well their men and want something to look at
    - Or (perhaps most probably) it relates to the fact that men are usually the buyers and the pursuers *in the dating market* and because men need women more *when it comes to dating/sex* and nightclubs are the preferred place to try and get a mate/date (at least in britain) then thats why *in these venues* women are given better treatment.

  5. Hey T.

    Great article as always, but I want to ask you about a few of your arguments:

    -Women are (on average) of higher status than men. Her value is simply assumed especially if she is at all attractive.

    I would argue that a woman’s attractiveness plays a huge role in her value since men want their children to have those beautiful genes to make it easier for them to reproduce in the future.
    I can understand that a beautiful woman does not need to prove her self as much as a beautiful man would, but could this be due to the typical gender roles where the woman cares for the children and the man protects the home.

    -If someone has a lot of ground already from breaking a lot of windows in the past and getting away with it, what would you recommend be done to bring them back in check?

    because you make the broken window theory sound irreversible.

  6. What? Why did my comment disappear?

  7. I don’t know but I can’t find it now even when I look in the folders for spam and deleted comments. Anyway, my response to you was that yes, I will be continuing the female immaturity series.

  8. I’m a teacher in an urban district (predominantly black) and the Broken Window Theory heavily applies in classroom management. The classroom environment is really a microcosm of society; in which, everything observed can be directly applied to what you write.

    At the beginning of every year, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, needs to be addressed. If a student misbehaves in any capacity, you almost have to respond to it disproportionately. If you let it go, the rest of the class observes and slowly begins to take liberties as the school year moves on. By the time you realize it, the class has already lost their respect for you. It’s almost impossible to push the line back. You can have most engaging lesson on the face of planet, and the students won’t even take their time to listen.

    I teach grades 5-7 Social Studies, so I see some of the same students every year. Although my management has improved tremendously from my first year – as it can be seen by my 5th graders who did not have me in the years past, my older students still regard me in much less respect. At times, I react in the same fashion I did my first year of teaching.

    On another note, in the similar way women have a perceived higher value, black teachers in my school do as well. I’m Asian and I definitely have to work much harder to establish rapport with the students. The white female teachers probably have it the hardest. Some who have been there 20+ years, with solidified classroom management tactics, are even given less respect than me.

  9. Excellent post. I agree with your assessment that neglecting the pitfalls that stem from the “broken windows” theory for short-term gain, will eventually result in a loss for the said participant in the long run.

  10. Great to see more articles! :-)

    For a tongue-in-cheek comment, is Game of Thrones basically a “Broken Windows” situation, except by “windows” we mean “Starks”? lol…

  11. “For a tongue-in-cheek comment, is Game of Thrones basically a “Broken Windows” situation, except by “windows” we mean “Starks”? lol…”

    Paul, that’s a joke on one level but not on another. GoT shows a society with very little of the social infrastructure you find in civil society. Even basic aristocratic norms such as the inviolability of guests get disregarded. And there is no norm of respecting nayone who cannot kick your ass, either immediately or down the road.

  12. “Paul, that’s a joke on one level but not on another. GoT shows a society with very little of the social infrastructure you find in civil society. Even basic aristocratic norms such as the inviolability of guests get disregarded. And there is no norm of respecting nayone who cannot kick your ass, either immediately or down the road.”

    LOL…! :-)

    It’s kind of awesome – that someone else actually got that it’s both kind of a funny joke, but also is somewhat genuinely representative of the theory as well. :D

    When I wrote it, I totally thought that it’s a joke on one level but also a somewhat realistic depiction of the social dynamic on another. It’s pretty cool someone one caught that. :-)

  13. The only question that matters, when is your book coming along? And, would you consider “The Rawness 2010, 2011, etc.” series on Kindle or PDFs for easy reading?

  14. This is so relevant to the broken window and assumed higher value of women discussion:

    “It was a typical Saturday night in London; we were sipping cocktails at one of the most fashionable clubs. [...] We were attracting plenty of male attention and, as a result of that and some lethal cocktails, our egos were getting bigger and bigger.

    Men were sending us bottles of champagne; some were brave enough to come over to speak, some tried to dance with us, but all were sent back to their tables with tails firmly between their legs. We even turned down two fairly well-known celebrities, who were particularly annoyed with us for not falling at their feet like most women immediately did.”

    The thing was, we didn’t care. We were on a high, enjoying being together, laughing at the attention we were receiving, and besides– two out of the five of us had boyfriends.” (Kezia Noble, The Art of Seducing Women, Introduction)

    I absolutely cannot read shit like that without being filled with envy and some sense of anger. I want what they have, and do you know what a man would have to be or accomplish to even get a taste of that? I want help dealing with those feelings also. Also some macro sociopolitical/psychological analysis would be good.

  15. Hey T, this is an interesting article. I see examples of this theory all the time, especially being from england where banter is, I’ve heard, much more of a phenomenon than other cultures.
    My main issue is this: where do you draw the line – and is there even a line – between the joking-at-eachothers-expense humour as a way people connect, just because the culture dictates it so, and something where you’re devaluing eachother?

    I use this humour a lot with friends, even when there is noone else present to impress. It’s also something I do with close friends especially, where there is that trust already. It doesn’t feel like I’m being challenged when one makes such a joke against me, and the same vice versa. Perhaps this humour was borne out of status competition and has just become a cultural trend one must adhere to, like manners.
    I dislike the idea of setting out boundaries against this kind of humour, I feel that I wouldn’t be able to connect to people here and even existing friends in the same way, for being too over-sensitive, and it seems silly to make a deal out of something relatively insignificant which I do not feel affected by. Is this just screaming out to the world that I am a person of low self esteem? I do not feel as such.

    Do you have any thoughts? I had the same conflict from when you talked about your past with manipulative women in the PM podcast.


  16. When are you writing a book?

  17. I think the reason why pretty women find it easier to get into nightclubs than handsome men is because nightclubs are very much an environment to look for a mate. Physical attractiveness a major quality (maybe even the main quality) that men are attracted to, at least initially. That’s why men of high status (celebrity and/or successful) also find it easier, because that’s what women are more attracted to. It raises the value of the nightclub as a place to meet the opposite sex.

  18. Al, I don’t get your point exactly. Are you somehow disagreeing with me? I ask because the points you’re making I imagine to be pretty obvious to the average reader of this blog.

  19. I agree with your article and I like the way in which you’ve applied Broken Window Theory to relationships. What I was referring to was the example you gave with regard to the sexual context of nightclubs. In particular, why attractive women are assumed to have higher status. In nightclubs status is based on superficial impressions, therefore physical appearance infers sexual status for a woman, even if it is ascribed rather than achieved. I do agree that a group of men putting each other down in order to impress her only confirms, or even exacerbates, lower status. Let’s not forget though that a little bit of self-deprecation, if done with humility and not self-sabotage can imply confidence and comfort with oneself, but this is a fine line that I think a lot of people get wrong. Reading back, my point before was perhaps a bit obvious and I imagine your readers would have been able to extrapolate this from reading the post anyway. I hope that I’ve explained myself more clearly this time.

  20. This is a readers review that makes me question the whole premise of the book you are referring to in this article

    early in this book he relates how a “small change” in Brooklyn policing strategies turned into a “large drop” in crime. In reality, Gladwell is wrong on both counts. “Broken windows” policing referred to by Gladwell was a large (not small change), and the “large drop” in crime Gladwell referred to had little or nothing to do with it.

    The reality is that “broken windows” policing ended up going far beyond simply pursuing those with minor violations (eg. fare-beating) to include studying crime patterns (location, timing, etc.), setting improvement goals, and regular high-level follow-up. Secondly, “Freakonomics” research concluded that the crime-rate decline began BEFORE the change in policing, and that most of the decline was due to increased staffing.

    Gladwell also attributed the decline to improved economic conditions – however, no such decline accompanied prior economic good times. Finally, Gladwell offered no explanation of why similar steep declines in crime occurred across the U.S. at the same time – without regard to any change in policing!

    Another of Gladwell’s problems is that he doesn’t seem to understand anything about statistics. The fact that a change in policing suposedly occurred at the same time as a decline in crime rates seems to be “proof” of causation for Gladwell. One of the first lessons in statistics, however, is that “correlation does not imply causation.”

  21. Angel – I think even if Broken Theory Windows is not solely responsible or even mostly responsible because other plausible contributing factors can be found, I don’t think that’s the same as saying that the whole theory is invalid or contributed nothing to the positive change. Also, you point out that other cities have economic improvement as well as NY during the same period but the crime still didn’t go down. So couldn’t that be possible evidence that the broken windows may have been one of reasons for the difference in outcomes? Finally, even if the Gladwell example isn’t conclusively proven to be true or is overstated, it’s not really relevant for the ultimate point of the blog post, which is about using the concept in your daily social life.

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