Why is it so hard to keep the house clean?

The simplest hypothesis is that we like to complain about a dirty or messy house but in fact we are observing an optimum.  We just don’t want to put more time in.

The behavioral economist believes we are making the same mistake over and over again.  What might that mistake be?

1. We clear away papers, books, and dirt, but we do not develop new systems for preventing their future accumulation.  In other words, we reduce the immediate stress but discount the future stress of future dirtiness at too high a rate.

2. A free-rider problem, combined with ill-defined property rights, means that piles accumulate repeatedly.  Cleaning is like removing a few cars from one lane of a two-lane highway.  New cars (piles) step in quickly to fill the temporary gap.  In a multi-person household, cleaning just shifts the traffic into different lanes rather than pricing the road.

A real solution might involve the random destruction or taxation of the property of other household members, so as to limit accumulation in the first place.  Bonuses for savings could help as well, since savings are a relatively liquid and low storage cost means of carrying wealth.

3. We overrate the liquidity value of inventories.  We want many things at hand which are of little or no use, perhaps because of an endowment effect.  Most people should throw away anything they have not touched for the last three years. 

4. Framing effects mean that we can get used to many kinds of messes.  The real problems come from the people who keep their homes clean.  Tax them and their cleanliness, for the same reasons that Bob Frank wishes to tax status goods.

Here is my previous post Tyler Cowen, Ramist.  Here is my idea of how to clean up the house.  Here is my post on the tennis ball problem.


When I saw the headline in my RSS feed, I thought this was about the series of House of Representatives scandals that erupt once or twice every generation. The first sentence, at least, applies...

Some of this applies to offices as well. However, I have had
this unpleasant experience on quite a few occasions of "finally"
throwing something away and then the very next day suddenly
discovering that I need it. Does to stimulate the old loss
aversion tendency, which is also involved here.

Maybe a market failure coordination problem?

Me and my wife sorted our endless hatred of cleaning and agreed to hire a cleaner. The results is pretty outstanding. Coming home to a completely clean house, and to get the most return for our money we have to keep it tidy by not leaving piles of stuff around.

"The real problems come from the people who keep their homes clean. Tax them and their cleanliness, for the same reasons that Bob Frank wishes to tax status goods."

Is Tyler suggesting we make messes at our friends houses if they keep them to clean?

There's also a long-term ordering effect in piles of stuff-- things you don't use sink to the bottom of the stack. So, cleaning up the piles of stuff on your desk (or on your floor) actually increases entropy because you lose the information about what you don't use.

5. Not enough people doing FlyLady http://www.flylady.net/

Not #2 (free rider problem). I am clean when I live with others. Messy when I live alone.

I am messy, but once I start cleaning, I tend to persist until the place is absolutely spotless. I maintain it for a while. Then gradually, almost imperceptibly, I let the place go. Evidently there is some cost to getting into the cleaning mood, so that the place must be quite a mess before I am prompted to get into the cleaning mood. But once I am in that groove, I stay in the groove until the place is spotless. And beyond. I might start rearranging the furniture or buy new furniture. Once the place is clean, I keep it clean for a while, but at some point I do not. And then the "broken window" phenomenon apparently takes hold (not Bastiat's broken window; Giuliani's broken window). The shift from cleanliness to first level messiness is painful, costly, but the shift from first level messiness to second level messiness is much less costly - I perceive much less of a difference. Thus, once the initial hump is crossed, the mess accumulates.

Having stuff you don't need is perhaps a distinct problem from having what you have neat and organized, or piled up all over the place.

A real solution might involve the random destruction...of the property of other household members

Are you suggesting that I get a cat?

I second Constant's comment on the free-rider explanation. I avoid creating messes in common spaces out of a sense of obligation, but it's very difficult for me to keep a room clean when I'm the only one who uses it.

Discriminate when choosing a partner.

Find one who does not leave an unwashed bowl of ice cream at her backside for two hours at a time, an empty water jug in the same place for two days at a time, who is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of trying, just once, to put something back where she found it and who does not seem to prefer living in chaos to living in order.

Georgiana - fewer people per house is not necessarily correlated with more mess per house. We've now got 4 small free riders, er, kids, and the place usually looks like a tornado hit a Toys R Us.

Most people should throw away anything they have not touched for the last three years.

What about books?

Hypothesis Two is also correct. In a multi-person household with common areas, the work necessary to bail will be done by whoever has the least tolerance for high water levels in the boat. This isn't really a problem, though: whoever wants to maintain a higher level of cleanliness can offer payments to the slobs to get them to help with the work that the neat freak would otherwise do on his own. This is simply part of the cost of living with people who are willing to live with more mess than you.

Hypothesis Three is irrelevant to mess. Things you want to keep can be stored efficiently without contributing to a messy environment. The keep-versus-discard decision should reflect storage costs, not the cost of living with mess or the cost of cleaning up.

Hypothesis Four: good one. :)

You'll make more efficient use of your Ramism if you expand your physical memory space from a handful of horizontal surfaces to a large number of locations separated in three-dimensional space and enclosing volume, not just consuming surface area. Your memory space can expand beyond your office and encompass your entire house - or even further. Some people call such things "filing cabinets", "storage boxes", and "landfills"; pay no attention to them. They simply aren't sophisticated enough to recognize a Memory Theater when they see it.

Patrick: true enough, and that certainly applies to some household tasks such as vaccuuming, dusting, and bathroom scrubbing. But not decluttering, unless you declutter using a backhoe.

Suggest new title for post - An Economist's Excuse for Not Cleaning Up After Himself ;-)

We are consistantly cleaning but sometimes there is just not enough room for everything.

That's a storage problem, then. Clutter is when things aren't in their place. Overflow is when there's not enough places for everything. Cleaning can't solve overflow - you need more room to store stuff, more efficient ways to store stuff, or less stuff. The Container Store is a godsend to people looking for more efficient ways to store stuff, but even that only goes so far. Eventually you need guys with trucks, either round trip or one way.

This post is hysterical. I love some of the comments. I personally don't spend much time cleaning - but I know a lot of people don't know the secrets to keeping things clean and struggle with it. At least you all have a sense of humor about it.

Lightened up my day - even though I'm months late. Hey, posts on the internet live forever.

Now if someone could show me how to clean up my computer - that's another story!

I feel the same way sometimes; about how my house never seems to stay tidy. Even after everything is boxed up, like it is now, it still manages to be a complete mess. Hopefully that won't bother my local moving companies when they come to help me move to Chicago.

I think that keeping the house clean could be done very easily with the help of Whirlpool parts. Today we have so much technology at our disposal. We just need to pick the right products for us and our home.

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