Broken Window Theory

Broken Window Theory

The Broken Window Theory, which is also known as the Epidemic Theory of Crime, is one of the foundations of the bestseller book Tipping Point (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell defines tipping points as "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable; these are the moments of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." Tipping points are made possible through epidemics.

Gladwell came up with the three rules or principles of epidemics, based on learnings from worldwide stories of epidemics: (1) contagiousness (or how to be contagious and infect others); (2) little things have big effects; and (3) changes happen in dramatic moments. He further scrutinized what makes dramatic moments and identified three more: (1) law of the few; (2) power of context; and the (3) stickiness factor (or retainability, the impression that really marks and lasts). The law of the few are epidemics facilitators and there are three types: (1) the connectors (networkers); (2) the mavens (technical people; technocrats); and the (3) salesmen (persuaders). Without them knowing, these three types of people make it possible for epidemics to occur through their connections, technical skills and persuasive skills.

In the power of context, Gladwell underscores the environment and its power to shape people's behavior. Here is the crux of explaining and changing people's behavior by understanding and controlling the environment. Gladwell makes use of the Broken Window Theory as the main lever in understanding the power of context.

The Broken Window Theory was developed by James Wilson and George Kelling, both are criminologists and law enforcers. Gladwell disclosed that both Wilson and Kelling "argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder -- which is symbolized by a broken window. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the impression of anarchy will spread from the buildings to the streets and to the entire neighborhood environment, sending a signal that anything goes."

In Broken Window Theory, relatively minor problems like graffiti and vandalism, public disorder, littering, heavy traffic, vagrancy, gangsterism and other aggressive deviant behavior are all the equivalent of broken windows, which actually invite more serious crimes. This is the epidemic crime -- a crime that is contagious (like a fashion or a virus), that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community.

In the Tipping Point, an experiment was made to reduce criminality in the New York subways where graffitis normally scattered all over and the neighborhood buildings all had broken windows. Everytime the local officials built and re-built the dilapidated subway facilities, people kept on destroying and vandalizing these facilities and threw out litters and filth everywhere. When Kelling was brought in to help find the solution, he focused on cleaning the graffitis and vandals and ordered the massive repair of all broken windows.

Kelling asserted that the graffitis, vandals and the broken windows all symbolized disorder and inability of law enforcers to govern and projected the total collapse of the system. He pressed that all improvements in the subway facilities would be useless if they did not address the symbol of disorder. The local officials were surprised, but they found that Kelling's Broken Window Theory worked. People began to respect rule and order, and helped in taking care of the subway facilities and maintaining public cleanliness. The impression of order and cleanliness was very effectively contagious, creating a positive epidemic.

INSIGHTS: How is contagiousness made possible? The power of context can also be considered as the power of creating impression, which is actually the principle of the stickiness factor. Gladwell explains this as a process of motor mimickry, a process of emotional contagion that triggers epidemics. This contagion process is made possible through a very deep sense of emotional stirrings. This is the kind of emotion that moves people, the emotion that yields to some gradual effects bringing about long-term effects. If undesirable epidemics have tipping points, the opposite also powerfully create tipping points. Simply by starting on little things instead of grand acts, of small effects rather on large-scale interventions. Never belittle the capacity of small things. Do not disregard small details. Do not trivialize the value of minor contribution. Learn to appreciate the power of ripples. Gladwell's tipping points explain how little things can make a big difference indeed.


Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. USA: Little Brown.

The Tipping Point at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tipping_Point

Broken Window Theory at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixing_Broken_Windows

Malcom Gladwell at http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_06_03_a_tipping.htm