The Broken Window Theory

A well-known psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, created the now infamous “prison experiment” in 1971 where Stanford students were randomly selected as ‘inmates’ and ‘guards’. They had to stop the experiment after a few days because the student guards were turning into real sadists, actually assaulting their fellow students and the student prisoners developed signs of extreme stress. A movie, book, and documentary have been produced on the Stanford prison Experiment.
But I want to talk about an earlier study Zimbardo did in 1969. He abandoned two cars, one in an upscale Palo Alto California neighborhood and the other car in a poor run-down section of New York City. Within minutes, the New York car was being vandalized, parts stripped, and windows smashed, the car was completely destroyed in hours. Whereas in Palo Alto, the car remained untouched for weeks. Then Zimbardo took a hammer to the California car, breaking a window. Within hours, the Palo Alto car was destroyed. Some criminologists got a hold of this study and applied it on a larger scale to communities. The idea being, once you let some decay or disorder fester and linger, it can spread and impact the whole neighborhood. This idea also applies to businesses.
A little story, a true one. I was driving by my gas station this morning and was thinking, “I’m going to have to find a new service station”. Then I thought about the broken window theory. In this case it started with the car wash system breaking down two years ago and never getting fixed. Then a couple of pumping stations stopped working and they put a cardboard sign over the pump handle saying “Broke”. Lately some of the pumps are not processing credit cards so there is a message that says, “Pay inside before pumping.” How do you like trying to figure out how much gas you are going to need before you start pumping? There are only a couple of working pumps left at this place.

This is not the best way to fix a broken window in your car.

Why is it important to be aware of the broken window theory? Poverty is the cause for a lot of broken windows, however, organizations sometimes, in an effort to maximize short term profit, make decisions that have long-term deleterious consequences. The gas station owner may be saving some money now, but he will be losing customers and his business in the long run. Do you have a broken window where you work? Get it fixed.