Study: Disorder begets disorder

I want to call your attention to a recent article in Science magazine that discusses a study conducted in the Netherlands that found “when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread.”

In one of their experiments, the team of researchers attached paper fliers to bicycles that were parked in an alley with a sign that prohibited graffiti. The researchers covertly observed people as they retrieved their bicycles from the alley, and noted what they did with the paper fliers. Their results are striking.

One day, when the walls of the alley were free of graffiti, about a third of the cyclists littered their flier on the ground. But, on another day, when the walls of the alley were covered in graffiti, more than two-thirds of the cyclists littered their flier.

Another experiment tested whether or not people would steal money that was protruding from a mailbox when they passed by it. [Researcher Kees] Keizer and his colleagues [at the University of Groningen] observed that, when the area around the mailbox was tidy, only 13% of people passing by stole the money. However, when the area around the mailbox was littered with trash, 25% of the people passing by were willing to steal the money.

Over the course of their experiments, the researchers observed that people were much more inclined to disobey posted signs when it seemed like other people were doing so, litter when there was graffiti or the sound of fireworks present, and even steal when there was graffiti present. Given these observations, Keizer and colleagues suggest that as a certain norm-violating behavior becomes more common, it will also negatively influence conformity to other social norms and rules.

The study reinforce the findings of the Broken Window Theory, but also has very interesting implications for an unclutterer’s home.

The research suggests that if your home is in order, you and others in your home are more likely to keep the orderly state. Conversely, if something is disorderly, it is likely that more mess will develop.

I see this happen all the time in my home. Either my husband or I will feel unmotivated to open up the dishwasher to put a dirty cup or glass inside of it. The next person comes along, sees the dirty cup on the counter, and assumes the dishwasher must be filled with clean dishes. So, the second dirty cup is set on the counter. By dinner time, there will be a collection of dirty dishes on the kitchen counter when the dishwasher has been completely empty all day. Mess begets mess.

What do you think of the findings of this study? Do you find that disorder leads to more disorder? Does order motivate you to continue the orderly cycle? Let us know what you think in the comments.

initial link via Guy Kawasaki, picture by Matt

33 Comments for “Study: Disorder begets disorder”

  1. posted by Bevin on

    I definitely agree. Our family recently completed cleaning and decluttering our entire home (yay!) and yet we still have some of the same habits that got us there in the first place, including the same dishwasher issue that you mentioned in this post. On the other hand, now that we have a place for everything in our house we tend to put things away immediately after using them.

  2. posted by jan on

    Oh I’m not sure as my husband is the master of clear surfaces…If it clear, fill it up,lol!

  3. posted by ck on

    I think this says more about how people interpret street art (aka graffiti) than about “disorder” begetting disorder.

    For more on graffiti and its relationship to public spaces, you might want to check out

  4. posted by Catbird on

    I’m with Jan – I think no matter how much order I create, my husband is there to create disorder.

    I suppose, however, that when he’s already left his things a mess, I am more likely to leave my things a bit disordered out of sheer frustration.

  5. posted by kat on

    Interesting! It seems like there were a lot of uncontrolled variables though.

    I used to throw fliers on the ground as a statement. I’m vehemently against littering otherwise, but when someone littered MY car (or bike, in this case), it made me angry. I would make a note never to buy any of whatever the flier was trying to sell me, and then intentionally throw it on the ground, in the (probably vain) hope that the owner of the lot/store/etc. would notice the mess and prohibit people from distributing fliers there in the future. (Petty and ineffectual and probably self-defeating, I know! But I hate invasive advertising in all its forms.)

    Aside from that, though… some graffiti is ugly and I can see how it would have that “broken window” effect. But some is very pretty and can even add to the impression that a place is a community, not just some random street. I particularly love when there are complicated murals that were obviously worked on and added to by many people.

    I wonder if the previously-discarded fliers had any influence on what happened later? I think in any environment, what you do creates an “expectation” for others to live up to (or not). And of course we take social cues from our peers. I’m stunned that 1 out of 4 people would steal money from a mailbox, though.

  6. posted by Michele on

    I saw this during our ongoing remodel. When we first purchased our house, it had been trashed by the prior owner inside and out. There were junked cars, rusty bars on windows rotting out of the wall, unkempt weeds, junk on front lawn, etc. When we got into the remodeling, it got worse before it got better, and for a period our house became the neighborhood dumping ground for unwanted large items (mattresses, shopping carts, furniture, etc). At least 3 times a day, we would get a pile of dog poop left. I think inconsiderate people saw that the house didn’t look good and just figured a little more mess was okay. Now that we are much further along, the problem has all but stopped.

  7. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    In my experience I’ve found disorder begets disorder (in my house as well as my clients’ homes).

    However, when I worked in a chem lab and had everything organized and labeled, people would come to my lab and “borrow” my equipment and use my chemicals because they could find mine (not theirs). This was a source of frustration to me but rather than wasting my time re-ordering the building, I re-organized my lab with the labels in the wrong spots. I could find everything but no one else could!

    It also helped stop the drug addicts from stealing hypodermic syringes that I used to measure out microscopic quantities of chemicals.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @ck — Not all of their tests included graffiti.

  9. posted by Cynthia on

    I agree. We have the same issue in our home. When we pick up and clean it, it tends to stay clean and organized a bit longer. But as soon as one of us, usually my boyfriend, makes a mess or forgets to put something back in it’s place the house becomes cluttered and I tend to become lazy about placing things back in their place.

    So, how to do we get out of this habit? Or does this study just show that it’s our human nature and we’ll just have to deal with the occasional cluttered and messy home or space.

  10. posted by ck on

    Oh, I know, Erin – I just think it’s interesting that this connection is often made without asking what about the graffiti, if anything, causes the littering behavior. (Causation is difficult to demonstrate–as another commenter noted, there are other variables in place.) Are we talking random taggers and gang signs? Murals? Are there other differences in the environment, etc?

    Graffiti is certainly a “norm-violating behavior”, and intentionally so. But I think there are affinities between the impetus for this site and that of some, though not all, artists who do graffiti, street art, etc.[email protected]/3199720850/

    This is decluttering and norm-violation at its finest… illegal, yes. Vandalism? Yes. A statement about visual clutter? Absolutely.

  11. posted by Britany on

    I would agree that disorder creates more disorder, at least in our family. If, for instance, the car is washed and cleaned out, I tend to take the trash into the house or at least throw it in the trash sack in the car. But if it is dirty and has stayed that way a while, I tend to get negligent and leave the trash on the floor, etc. I guess the mentality for me is “If no one else cares enough to take care of it, I’m not going to bother either”. Is that called ‘victim mentality’? Not sure, but I know it’s wrong!

  12. posted by Erin Doland on

    @ck — My guess is that it was more gang sign/tagging graffiti than, say, a Shepard Fairey mural.

  13. posted by Marielr on

    I agree, I used to have a room-mate that was THE tidiest person and also very minimal. I was more tidy when living with him (than say now) because he kept anything so pristine. I’d feel bad about leaving a magazine on the coffee table after reading it because that was the only clutter in the lounge!

  14. posted by Michele on

    My in-laws have the opposite problem…the clutter spreads because their mentally-ill-hoarder son yells at them if they try to clean anything up, and like fools they let him rule the house.

  15. posted by Rina on

    I think the link between the results of this study and the orderliness of one’s home is a bit of a stretch.

    My interpretation of the broken window theory suggests is that disorder is a cue to criminals and would-be-criminals that an environment (a street, an abandoned building) isn’t cared for, and they can break laws without getting caught. The neat alley and the tidy street with the mailbox are indicators that the people who live there had enough resources to take care of their environment and petty crimes and irresponsible behavior won’t be tolerated. However, those same behaviors in a trashed neighborhood would slide.

    I do agree that disorder in our homes tends to pile up and get out of control, but I think the reasons for that are totally different. There’s clutter on the dining table because (a)there isn’t a good “home for it (b) there isn’t a routine to deal with mail, or several other reasons. For me, if the clutter “snowball” gets started, it can be overwhelming to deal with it.

    I don’t think that’s the same as feeling like you won’t get caught while you’re breaking some rule. I mean, it’s not like there’s any mystery about who put the clutter on the dining table in the first place – it’s one of the handful of people living in your household.

  16. posted by Adrian on

    This is an interesting article. I’ve been reading a similar book called Predictably Unpredictable because human behavior like this just fascinates me. I think I should have been a psychologist.

    It would be interesting to do an experiment like this in your house. Have one room that is kept completely clean for a week and one that is kept completely cluttered and then clean them both up and see which one stays clean for longer.

  17. posted by mdm on

    Boston Globe has a great series of sixty pictures of a pit of a office being transformed.. Messiest office ever contest.. Kind of cool.

  18. posted by chaotic kitten on

    This definitely makes sense to me, and really does apply to my hoarding situation.

    In the two rooms I’m working seriously on, I clear up small messes, whereas in the other, totally totally chaotic rooms, I don’t do a thing. Really, not a thing.

    Ah well, I’ll get there 🙂

  19. posted by Erin on

    Interesting. I agree with the post – I do believe this theory plays out even on the smaller scale (e.g. in the home and at work), whether or not it was the original focus of the study. I first read about the Broken Window Theory in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (he talks about how NYC also applied this theory to improve its own graffiti situation – and it worked).

    Back when I read that book, I was in college living in a house with 8 girls. Our dishes were always a problem. We had no dishwasher, so we were all supposed to wash our dishes by hand on the honor system – and as soon as one dish was left in the sink, all hell would break loose. One day I started us from scratch, washed every dish and cleaned the sink till it was spotless. For at least a few days nobody DARED mess that up – and the first dirty dish that would appear started the cycle again.

    It’s a small example, but like does attract like!

    My current spare bedroom/home office is sort of in the “broken window” state right now, and I actually just today decided to kick off a project to unclutter and transform it. So, I’m sure I’ll be back to Unclutterer frequently for ideas and tips, and I’m planning to post updates on my blog.

    I love how Unclutterer approaches organization in a broad, holistic way, and this post is a great example. Thanks – I really like your site!

  20. posted by Danielle LaPorte on

    100% on board with this theory. when it comes to space and stuff (and even relationships) we tend to leave it like we found it.

  21. posted by Debbie Harris on

    Absolutely. When my husband of 30 years moved out in September (taking all of his crap with him) I became 100% neater. For 30 years I dealt with the clutter and the messiness because it came along with him. Now that I have the bedroom to myself, for instance, it’s pristine. And the neater I keep it the neater I am.


  22. posted by Robin L. on

    I’ve noticed that my mind gets disorganized if my physical environment is cluttered. And when I have my physical environment organized my mind feels less ADD.

  23. posted by Filipa on

    I think this is so true! When I see something out of place in my bedroom I tend to leave other things out of place as well, with the thought “Then I’ll put all into place at once”…
    This was my “Inspiring Post Of the Day”!:)

  24. posted by Barry on

    @ ck – I completely agree there there would seem to be a difference between street art which may be characterized as graffiti, and vandalism. It would be interesting to read if the researchers made a distinction.

    @ Erin Doland – Though you seem to agree with ck, doesn’t the photo at the top of the post suggest otherwise? Isn’t it possible that by including the photo you have chosen, your readers might make the mistaken conclusion that any such instance of graffiti has a negative result on people’s behavior?

  25. posted by Dream Mom on

    I definitely think it’s true. I also think it’s more likely to notice one thing when everything else is put away than to notice one thing when there is stuff everywhere.

    I also notice when people come into my apartment, they always take their shoes off. I like a clean and spare foyer when I walk through the door. There are never any of my shoes in the foyer since I prefer to put them in the closet. When they go to their own homes, I see them wear their shoes in their house. Interesting.

  26. posted by x on

    What if it’s really nice graffiti?

  27. posted by joss on

    The book “Home Comforts” has a great chapter called “Neatening” that discusses exactly this idea. I love that book!

  28. posted by Ken Silver on

    The only argument my wife and I have these days is about clutter. I’m a neat freak and she is – well, more relaxed…preferring a homely look with strewn magazines and clothing that make the place look livedin and less like a show home. Unfortunately our 5-year old contemporary home doesn’t suit mess. It’s a very clean, minimalistic design in white and light grey. So a few years back I decided to divide the house into public and personal areas. My criteria (fortunately my wife agreed), was that ALL public spaces – where we were likely to entertain or show visitors, were to be immaculate day and night. Our personal spaces, like home offices and library, could be left in any state. It has worked a treat. The public spaces never look messy, and we never have to race around cleaning up when a visitor calls. It is a very satisfying state to be.

  29. posted by Giggles on

    I know that for me, when my house is in disorder, my brain is also disorganized and I can’t figure out what to do next or what I’m supposed to do and so I can’t start cleaning anything up and I just sit there frustrated and it gets worse.

    If I’m going to take care of it, it requires creating a bit of order my sitting down and writing a very detailed to-do list and then start checking things off one at a time.

    But when things are clean and organized, I don’t need a to-do list as much.

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  32. posted by Melissa of {craftgasm} on

    I agree with the basic theory, but have had experiences where it just doesn’t work like that for me. I live in a group house of five roommates, and have had events and parties where I’ve had to clean up everyone’s disaster areas in the common spaces to make the place presentable. Then, even though I’ve started the house off on a clean slate, and it ought to be easy to keep that way, its clean surfaces inevitably become depositories for strewn bags, jackets, glasses, and other crap just a day later.

    This is why I am moving to my own place in April. I cannot tell you how thrilled this makes me.

  33. posted by lola meyer on

    Mess does beget mess. And in our home we have the same rule as Ken Silver; the public spaces are kept clutter free and clean. Personal space, such as someone’s desk, isn’t subject to this rule. It’s been interesting to watch my husband change over the years from being messy in his desk area, to reasonbly tidy–I think the rest of the house is having an influence on him!

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