Broken windows

by Rob Horning

12 May 2006


Much has been made of James Wilson’s broken windows theory of criminal justice, the premise of which is that if a city attends to policing petty crimes like vandalism and so forth, crime in generally will be more effectively deterred. In other words, concentrate on the small problems and some of the larger problems will begin to fix themselves as well. Whether or not this holds is another story, but I thought it was interesting that in last Sunday’s NYT Book Review a review of Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness pointed out that book’s broken-windows sort of approach to happiness. Taking care of the little problems in life, having the simple things work right, give us much more happiness than major events; and little nuisances bother us much more than major catastrophes: “Our day-to-day happiness may be predicated more strongly on little events than on big ones.”

Events that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think; things that fill us with dread will make us less unhappy, for less long, than we anticipate. As evidence, Gilbert cites studies showing that a large majority of people who endure major trauma (wars, car accidents, rapes) in their lives will return successfully to their pre-trauma emotional state — and that many of them will report that they ended up happier than they were before the trauma. It’s as though we’re equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.

Maybe this is why the logic of the broken-windows theory is so compelling, feels true even if it’s not—it confirms biases built in to our own emotional regulation system. Nuisances register more deeply than crimes, so it makes sense that the benefits of policing them would appear all out of proportion to us. It is the same sort of mentality I found myself slipping into all too often as a composition instructor—I would think if only my students could make their subjects and verbs agree, then maybe their arguments would start to make sense of their own accord. It’s in that spirit that I should probably copy-edit these blog entries. Maybe they’ll start making some sense too.

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