The Broken Windows Theory and Therapy

One broken window often leads to others
Normally used in sociology and criminology, the broken windows theory may also be useful to therapists

Windows and TherapyFirst identified in 1982 by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling, the broken windows theory suggests that broken windows that are not quickly repaired will encourage people to break more windows in the same neighbourhood. According to this theory, broken windows not only invite more broken windows but also encourage vandals to break into the building and damage it further.

An un-repaired broken window suggests to people that no one cares and that no one is monitoring the area. An un-repaired broken window in a neighbourhood suggests disorder.

Wilson and Kelling believed that this suggestion of disorder encouraged people towards further disorder. Wilson and Kelling saw crime as the final result of a chain of smaller events, believing that crime originated from disorder. If disorder were eliminated, they believed fewer serious crimes would occur.

Their theory was used widely in the 1980’s and 90’s to change the way police forces (most notably in New York City) approached criminal behaviour.

On a basic level, the broken windows theory demonstrates how people will follow the social norms of their environment. People will often interact with their environment according to signals taken from the physical space around them.

A similar phenomenon happens when people dispose of their litter in public places. Research has shown that people are far more likely to leave rubbish in a public space (on the street, in a park) if the public space is already littered. A clean, un-littered space suggests that people care, that littering is not allowed and that there may be a penalty for littering. A space already heavily littered suggests that people in the area don’t care, that there are no standards to live up to and that littering the area further is acceptable.

Broken windows in therapy

Broken Window and Counselling BoundariesAs therapists, do we have ‘broken windows’ in our style of practice? We know that clients observe us almost as closely as we observe them. While we may not intentionally provide much information about ourselves, clients pick up messages from our physical selves, from our practice policies and from the consulting room.

If a boundary is easily broken once, does this encourage more disorder? If a client arrives 10 minutes early and the therapist begins the session at that time, does this encourage further early arrivals? We may be sending a message that no one cares, that boundaries are not being monitored and there is no penalty for this behaviour.

If a therapist changes a client’s appointment time for her own purposes, does this encourage the client to ask for alternative appointments in later weeks? As with broken windows, does one small bit of chaos encourage more disruption?

In a practice with several therapists, it will sometimes be noticed that one therapist receives more cancellations and absences from her clients than other therapists in the practice. What message might this therapist be sending, however unconsciously, that suggests to clients that missing appointments is OK? Is the client picking up messages that this therapist can be easily ‘dumped’, or that the therapist doesn’t care if the client attends or not, or perhaps that therapy with this therapist is a loose arrangement that does not require a structured commitment?

What messages might a disordered or unclean consulting room suggest? What messages might be picked up if the consulting room is ever-changing? Some therapists work for a few months from one location, then move to rooms elsewhere and then move again when other alternatives become available. What might this movement suggest? Does chaos perpetuate further chaos?

Whether it’s within boundaries, practice policies, the physical consulting space or the therapist herself, ‘broken windows’ can encourage more broken windows.

If the street is already littered, why not litter it some more?