The Broken Windows Theory and therapy

What is Broken Windows Theory?

First 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 Theory and therapy

Do therapists sometimes have ‘broken windows’ in their style of practice? We know that clients observe therapists almost as closely as therapists observe them. While therapists may not intentionally provide information about themselves, clients pick up messages from therapists’ physical selves, from practice policies and from the consulting room.

In therapy, 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 early, does this encourage further early arrivals? We may be sending a message that no one cares or that boundaries are not being monitored.

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?

The subtle messages a therapist sends are important

In a practice with several therapists, it is sometimes observed 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 that therapy with this therapist is a loose arrangement that does not require a structured commitment?

A disordered, ever-changing or chaotic consulting room can send powerful messages to clients. Some therapists work for a few months from one location, then move to rooms elsewhere when other alternatives become available. What might this movement suggest? Does chaos in the therapy room 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. Unclear, unmonitored or ever-changing boundaries can have a very negative impact on therapy.

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