My housemates won’t clean the kitchen

26th September, 2009

Dear Economist,
I am an economics student sharing a house with two other students and there is an issue with keeping the kitchen clean. I thought that a grim punishment strategy would maintain a system of alternate cleaners. But my threat to “punish” by refusing to clean indefinitely is not seen as credible by my housemates as I value a clean kitchen more than they do. What to do?
Tom, Gloucestershire

Dear Tom,

I counsel against “grim” as a strategy. As you know, “grim” describes a strategy of punishing unwelcome behaviour with everlasting, implacable revenge. In most circumstances, your own included, this is bluff. It’s not hard to imagine the bluster: “Right! I mean it this time. This really is your last warning.”

There is a more serious problem. You are treating the issue as some kind of public-goods game or prisoner’s dilemma, in which everyone has an incentive to act selfishly while hoping that others will do the spade work. But this is a student household. Not only is “spade work” likely to be an accurate description of what it will take to clean the kitchen, but your housemates may be entirely indifferent to how clean the place is. Many of these men will, later in life, inhabit bachelor pads with kitchens just as filthy, which suggests that we are not really talking about a collective action problem at all.

If you could persuade them to care about the kitchen at all, your best bet might be to persuade them to contribute to hiring a cleaner, rather than to contribute to cleaning up themselves. Behavioural economics suggests that people are much more reluctant to cheat if hard cash is involved. But how to make them care in the first place? Perhaps you might speculate about why no young female students ever come to stay. Point out that while women enjoy culture as part of a night out, they do not wish to find it growing in the fridge.

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