Question of the Day: How to Get Roommates to Share in Cleaning?

A reader named Jason Stauffer writes:

I live with four guys in a house. We had no cleaning schedule until about a month ago, but the house was never cluttered, and was more than clean enough for actual women to feel comfortable visiting. Even the bathroom was clean enough for the girls to freely use it without vomiting. However since we have implemented our cleaning schedule the house has gotten into worse and worse shape. The toilet downstairs is even looking so bad I don’t want to use it. What gives?

Okay, everybody, let’s hear what you have to say about private vs. public incentives, moral hazard, and the general cleanliness of men.

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  1. Shypo Lindley says:

    When there is no cleaning schedule, there is inertia to stay on top of the mess. When there is a schedule that means cleaning will be put off until it is “time to clean.” But, for twentysomethings (men or women) time-management is not always their strongest suit. The schedule allows for a mess to build up — it’s not time to clean it yet. Then when it is time to clean — look at this mess, this will take hours. I have event X to go to. I’ll get it when I get back. — and then when they get back from event X, — I’ll clean it tomorrow. — until too many tomorrows have come and gone and it’s almost the scheduled time to clean again, so — I’ll get it Saturday, when it’s cleaning time.

    repeat ad nauseum.

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  2. Nampuna Dolok Gultom says:

    I think this is a common case in all guys’ house. Initiative maybe is the keyword. When there are no specific arrangement whatsoever in the house, everyone will somehow try their best to maintain the cleanliness of the house because one may feel a bit shameful if they don’t (assuming that everyone will feel the same thing that the others will try their best to maintain the cleanliness of the house). This kind of understanding will be very effective if none of the guys make a case about it, because once one member complains about it, then hence the creation of cleaning arrangement. Also, it will be even more effective if some of the members were visited regularly by their girlfriends. The single guys will still feel a bit embarrassed if those ‘taken’ girls find out that they have terrible cleanliness. However, once the cleaning arrangement put into place, one guy will think that the house is not clean enough because the previous guy didn’t clean the house properly and so why should the guy be ‘cleaner’ this time and this routine will go up to the boiling point that all members can’t take it anymore.

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  3. Albert B. says:

    There’s also the problem of moral hazard and timing even if everyone does his job and the schedule works “properly.”

    If you’re not the next person to clean the kitchen, you have every incentive to leave everything a mess since you won’t be the one dealing with it. Thus, the kitchen will always be in as filthy a condition as possible right before a scheduled cleaning. Then, given the moral hazard problem, it will only be clean for a few hours right after the scheduled cleaning since everyone else will get back to making it dirty (including, potentially, the person who just cleaned!) provided they are not the next person scheduled to clean.

    The crucial point is that the appearance or state of cleanliness depends more on people making as small a mess as they can and cleaning up in a timely fashion after they make a mess. Both of these actions are dis-incentivized by the cleaning schedule structured.

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  4. STL Tom says:

    Twenty years ago, my two best friends and I moved into a house with three other guys. It turned into the Delta Animal House to the point that women were disgusted to go to the bathroom. I threw down the gauntlet with a written plan. It got worse.

    Bottom line, we all had different upbringings and expectations. After 20 years of thinking about this, I figured out that three of us had mutual values and respect for each other. We loved each other (yes, in a brotherly way) to be there for each other. The other three did not give a rip. We did not lay out a true incentive to these other three to follow suit (yes — Freakonomics taught me this). We laid out disincentives instead. It became a game of who could screw over the next guy worse.

    When we moved out and moved in with a like-minded guy, we lived in the most clean and orderly place of my college career. Why? We were a little more mature but more importantly, we had the same cleanliness values and mutual respect.

    So, sit down and see if you guys can come to a general consensus on what it is an acceptable place to live. Isn’t the courting of women enough incentive? Sorry men, Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper can live in a hell hole and it would be considered charming. For us average guys, it makes us sociopaths and narcissistic D-Bags.

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  5. David says:

    Completely agree with what the other commentors have already theorized – that one person was doing all the work, thought he could spread the load, and found that when the schedule was implemented, nobody was willing to help. I would ask Jason why he’s so dirty because it’s clear he’s not the roommate doing all the work. I am also curious from the other roommates’ perspective, did they think their house was kept clean by magic fairies, even though they did no work?

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  6. Mark says:

    Does it make economic sense to do your own cleaning? Just hire Molly Maid to come in every two weeks and split the cost.

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  7. Hrishikesh says:

    I agree with Jennifer. I think the fact that there is a schedule in place is an incentive itself to clutter things when it’s not that person’s turn. Previously I think there was some effort by every roommate to cleanup after themselves but after the schedule that need vanished and taken over by free will of making mess when it’s not our own turn.

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  8. rids says:

    Men will be men… that said, there could be an explanation to this problem.

    Assumption: Each one has a moderate sense of hygiene and prefers a cleaner environment to a dirtier one.

    Now, prior to the schedule it could have been the case that all four had a certain private benefit (that acted as an incentive) to keep their territories clean and would regularly clean up after themselves after using a public area (bathroom). With the division of responsibilities, each one believes that they need to do only what has been allocated to them. Coupled with a lack of benefits and external incentives, each one is just concerned about getting the job done and getting on with it (private benefits are far less than public benefits). So, what’s happening is that just for the sake of getting the work done, each one in essence is probably doing a mediocre job (eg: leaving one out of four dishes uncleaned, not taking out the garbage on time etc). And so, the house is looking filthier day by day.

    Eventually though what might happen is that the person with the highest and strongest sense of personal hygiene will get fed up of the other three and either leave or clean the house himself!

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