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. Jean says:

    I vaguely remember a chapter (was it in the first Freakonomics?) about how parents who were “fined” a small fee for arriving late to pick up their children actually ended showed up later and more often than parents who could not, presumably, “pay off their guilt”.

    That makes me hesitate to suggest enforcing a “cleaning fine”, but wouldn’t that change up the payoff matrix? I am assuming the relationship between these roommates is of a significantly different nature than the relationship between either parents and their children or between parents and their children’s afterschool caretakers. Namely, there is less emotional cost involved in disappointing your roommates than in letting down your kid or the nice stranger who takes care of him when you are late.

    So perhaps a mutually-enforced fine, that increases with repeated infractions (until, presumably, the roommate in question can no longer afford to be delinquent).

    Or, a large poster in near the entrance to the apartment that lists the person responsible for cleanliness that week, so that the first thing seen by guests upon entering a dirty apartment is the name of the person abrogating responsibilities.

    Money and/or shame?

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  2. artem says:

    Ha. I am the clean guy at the moment; I live in a house with 8 housemates. The reason I moved in is that it costs 65% of what I would pay in dorms and the rooms are the size of 2-3 dorm rooms. I am in school getting my electronics engineering phd full-time and this house is a 3 minute walk to the campus.

    So, in short, I am the guy who moved in last and cleaned most common areas of it. There was a fridge, for example, that was filled with food and no one ever touched it for 2 years ‘because it’s gross’. The common areas were covered with a layer of dirt topped with leaves and dust. Anyway, it was bad.

    The way I feel about a cleaning schedule is that it is not going to force anyone to do anything. We did introduce a schedule for taking out garbage recently, for example, but I don’t think it will have any effect. All in all, I saw an interesting trait: nobody in the house cared enough about the cleanliness of the house, but was unhappy about it. When I cleaned the house, everyone thanked me and I assumed that was the all I could get from those 8 housemates. I didn’t think anyone would even consider putting any effort in keeping it clean. Nevertheless, I started to see a change in their attitude: they started to do things to keep the house clean, such as replace paper towels on the holder I placed, replace toilet paper, buy cleaning supplies, etc. While this is not them cleaning it does show that they like the house being clean.
    If there would be a house cleaning schedule introduced for everyone, they would generally find it somewhat annoying and would do their best to put in the least effort in keeping up with it. There is no magic to change people. I am convinced that there should be this one center force that drives any progress (I mean, in everything!). Others will follow, but thinking that a bunch of people can manage a task without a lead is a fallacy. This big mistake is surprisingly common in US… (that’s why school group projects are a somewhat idiotic idea ( I am convinced that the inability to manage anything en masse without a pronounced leader is a big problem that is prevalent right now in any kind of societies, not just housemates. I am sure this discussion can expand well beyond all-male houses. (the whole world, for example) ?

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  3. Dustin J says:

    I had a problem similar to this once. We found that we had to tie it to money. Had to be enough to be memorable in the moment but not so much that everyone balked. I ended up writing a website for it that would send emails and texts to whoevers turn it was and would keep track of the points for everyone. It still turned into white noise eventually though and the mess would be clean for a while then fall into disarray. I had hoped for more from the site but I still use it for reminders, it is good at nagging but its not annoying enough to have much of an effect

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  4. Greg McConnel says:

    We had the same problem at work with our common kitchen. A few years back, the fridge had so much old food in it, we had to bring in a hazmat team to clean it out. Literally, a couple of guys wore gas masks and rubber outfits in fun while throwing out mould-covered food. The rest of the kitchen was nothing to write home about either. I am an economist and actually see this as a ‘tragedy of the commons’ issue. If no one person owns the kitchen as private property, there is little incentive to keep it clean — just as fisherman around the world have little incentive not to over-fish the oceans because no country owns them. I suggested we get around the problem by having one group at work (there are five) ‘own’ the kitchen for a month. That group has been responsible for cleaning the kitchen as per a schedule and the kitchen has actually been quite clean since. This case is a little different than the ‘scheduling didn’t work’ scenario but illustrates something useful nonetheless. Scheduling can work in some instances. Cheers :)

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  5. Scott Blackburn says:

    Seems like a classic case of Laws supplanting Norms to negative effect.

    With no schedule, the two norms were to “clean when dirty” and to “do ones fair share.” Since everyone felt the norms, a failure to act had two effects both of which enhanced cooperation. One was a series of social enforcements (say, jokes about Roommate A being a slob) and two was an understanding that micro transactional debits would be reciprocated in other ways (that is, if one person cleans more often, he felt others would make up the fair share in other ways – say, by preparing more group meals or buying more toilet paper).

    With the introduction of a cleaning schedule, you replaced the norms with the law of a cleaning schedule. This probably did a combination of three things. First, it removed the incentive of the cleaner roommates to clean disproportionately because a schedule breaks the “fair share” norm and so that roommate could not expect reciprocation in other ways. Second, it provided a less effective enforcement mechanism since failure to abide by the schedule was not as embarrassing as whatever social pressure existed under the norm. And third, it did not provide means of rehabilitation for failure to abide by the law – if you have a busy week and cannot clean, the schedule does not clarify who should clean next, when, and how to adjust for created unfairnesses.

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  6. Aaron Fletcher says:

    Perhaps you should use incentives to help persuade your roommates to clean more. Try putting a price on each room that needs to be cleaned regularly. Whatever your total is should be added to the overall rent. Say all of the jobs add up to $400 a month. Divide total that with the roommates, which will add$100 to everyone’s rent. From here you can draft/trade individual cleaning duties. For example- Bathroom $15 a month. This will require them to either do their cleaning or pay a larger portion of the rent. I would also recommend seeing how much it would cost to have a cleaner come in. Maybe it would be worth everyone just picking up an extra shift at work to have someone else do the job.

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  7. Brent says:

    I’m living in a residence hall with three other guys. I’m the only one that cleans our communal bathroom. I really don’t mind, though, because I want the bathroom to stay cleaner than any of the other three do. Essentially, I prefer the bathroom to be cleaned every week while my suite mates would only start to care about the state of the bathroom–and would only benefit from a cleaning–after about two weeks without one. Since I’m the only one that benefits from weekly cleaning I bear the entire cost myself.

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  8. Steve Nations says:

    The most interesting thing about this blog may be simply the number of replies to the different types of posts. This one has a ton.

    There is no doubt about it, from my college experience. Men are clean and take care of their place. Women are incredible slobs.

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