Broken Window theory: Pub toilet edition

It’s a Monday afternoon. The Abercrombie has ten dollar lunches, ten dollar jugs and there’s a strike tomorrow. The ‘crombie’s beer-garden restroom – smelling like copper; walls asphalt-coloured – is plastered with a thousand stickers of amateur club promoters and graffiti writers. The real problem though, is the urinal trough – a painfully awkward size, with just enough width that two people can squeeze alongside of each other. All public urinals turn the act of peeing from a simple biological requirement into something approaching a delicate and anxious choreography, but at the Abercrombie this holds especially true.

The inviting copout, and a chance to avoid rubbing shoulders with another punter, is a solitary cubicle tucked into the corner of the bathroom. It’s usually filthy, so I habitually avoid it, but on this visit it’s early enough so that it won’t be too bad. A full roll of toilet paper and a pristine seat indicate that I’m the first visitor, but I still don’t particularly want to touch the seat. With practiced aim I hit the sloping porcelain sides rather than the water, a childhood habit and another anxious tic. The tactic backfires when, finishing up, a lone droplet finds its way onto the toilet seat. Rather than wiping it off though, I leave without cleaning it. My justification is that, by the evening, the toilet will be a mess of urine anyway. And indeed a subsequent visit confirms that by the end of the night the pub toilet had become a crowded, messy canvas, slashed at, dripped on and draped in toilet paper, like some particularly offensive collaborative art project. The degeneration of a public bathroom might seem inevitable – and anecdotal evidence indicates it is (ever gone into Town Hall station’s toilets?) – but the reasons stem from the literal first drop, a notion known as ‘Broken Window’ theory.

Criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling coined the term ‘Broken Window’ in 1982, Malcolm Gladwell later popularised it and Banksy subsequently mocked it in his 2005 manifesto Wall and Piece, but the theory originated with an experiment by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo in the late 1960’s. Zimbardo set up an experiment with two abandoned cars – one in a urban neighbourhood, one in a smaller neighbourhood near Stanford and New York University. Within minutes the abandoned car in the urban environment (in the Bronx) was set upon and pillaged. It was stripped bare in hours, and within days had become part of the proverbial furniture, so suited to its surrounds that kids were using it as an impromptu playground. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, the car sat unattended and unmolested for a week.

The experiment indicated that disorder and crime are inexorably linked, and that degeneration and escalation of crime ensues when an area has a sense of anonymity. But what of the ‘broken window’? In Zimbardo’s experiment, the car in the suburban neighbourhood was untouched – until Zimbardo himself went and took a sledgehammer to the windshield, at which point the same trashing of the vehicle as had happened in the Bronx began. The broken window then, is analogous to my lone drop of urine on the seat – a trigger, an invitation to disorder, indicative that no-one cares. Like all the best theories, the pattern becomes self-fulfilling in practice – the tradie who goes into the cubicle after me sees my lack of respect for the space, and adjusts accordingly by not lifting the seat, not flushing, or not cleaning up his own mess.

The pertinent point of Wilson and Kelling is not only that people are predisposed to acting in a less regulated way in spaces that have reputations for violence or disorder – the Bronx, the public bathroom – but that the domino effect of the broken window (or soiled toilet seat) is reliant upon the figurative sledgehammer. The twin ideas that disorder begets more disorder and that places predisposed to such disorder are more likely to have crime may seem witheringly self-evident. But in practice, the evocation of such laws is startling. Wilson and Kelling ended their ‘Broken Windows’ paper by stating “the police – and the rest of us – ought to recognise the importance of maintaining intact communities without broken windows”.

They might as well have said “don’t be the guy who pees on the seat.”

Correction: This article incorrectly referred to Philip Zimbardo as ‘Zambrano’ or alternatively ‘Zawmbrano’. It also called Stanford University ‘Stamford’, and identified the neighbourhood conditions as ‘better-off’ and ‘poorer’. So all in all, not a great day for subediting. Our apologies.
Max Weber

Max Weber

Maximilian Karl Emil "Max" Weber (21 April 1864 – 14 June 1920) was a German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist whose ideas influenced social theory, social research, and the entire discipline of sociology. Weber is often cited, with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, as among the three founding architects of sociology. When not working in his favoured field he is also a postgraduate Media Practice student and reporter for Honi Soit.