Tragedy of the Kitchen

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When I first began studying systems, I lived in a late 1800’s era apartment in St. Louis with three other engineers and a kitchen that always seemed to teeter on the brink of disaster. Our rationality and technical firepower was useless. The system seemed somehow out of our control, cementing my intuition that this was a systems problem.

We can think of three types of “things” that compose any system: parts, interactions, and goals. In this case we had parts: four roommates, clean dishes, dirty dishes, a cooking area, a kitchen sink. We had interactions: we observed each other, we monitored the state of the kitchen, we turned clean dishes dirty, we turned dirty dishes clean. We each had goals: keep the kitchen clean (or functional or bearable depending on who you asked), minimize individual time and effort, and minimize the time and effort of our roommates (when we were feeling more compassionate).

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-47-09-pm(Read how to interpret Causal Loop Diagrams like the one above.)

We were facing a stubborn cyclical process of escalation, frustration and reluctant action. We would begin with a pristine kitchen, glimmering counter-tops and a poignant citrus aroma, and all it took was one busy, reckless person leaving a baleful, dirty dish out to initiate the characteristic death spiral of our kitchen. We all had busy days and left out a dirty dish once in a while, but the real problem began when the next person who entered, encountered a soiled kitchen and thought, “There’s already a dirty dish in the sink so leaving my dish here won’t make things significantly dirtier than they are already” (nobody will notice).

The social stigma of soiling a clean kitchen quickly eroded. The decision to neglect a small personal responsibility became easier for each subsequent person since a) nobody would notice and b) everybody was doing it. The growing mess of the kitchen led to feelings of helplessness and annoyance, making people more likely to leave their dishes out of a sense that there was really no use trying. The same helplessness and annoyance made people less likely to clean up relinquishing responsibility: “it’s not my mess,” they would think.

All of these processes conspired to accelerate the mess, as recognition of the problem gradually settled in. Perhaps it was a shortage of clean dishes (the resource had been fully depleted) or perhaps it was a lack of space in the sink or cooking area (the environment could no longer absorb our waste). Whatever it was, the problem eventually became impossible to ignore and somebody finally would finally say, “The time has come!”, and the long delayed balancing loop of cleaning would finally pick up. They would organize the community for a concerted cleaning effort.

The problem piles up (image from thenegotiationblog)

After each heartwarming come-together-cleaning, we renounced our careless ways, promised to take responsibility and sang kumbaya. We enforced normal standards of social responsibility and this heightened the social stigma of selfishness. This benevolent balancing loop prevailed for a time, but the memory of the problem would fade, and eventually busyness would drive someone to leave out a dirty dish and begin the cycle again, eroding our willpower to fight the cause and encouraging us each to act in our own self-interest.

It is hard to ignore the similarity between our kitchen tragedy and many other problems in our world, and there happens to be a system archetype that fits our situation quite well. Tragedy of the commons occurs when the individual gain from using some commonly shared resource far outweighs the loss to the individual, which is shared by the entire community, and at the same time use of the resource has some sort of reinforcing effect encouraging ever more use. This race to the bottom can be seen in the mob mentality of a crowd trying to exit a building, but obstructing the exit in the process, or in the wild fish market, where fisheries employ ever greater technologies to extract fish from the ocean while depletion of the fish population can eventually decrease reproductive potential. Society usually combats tragedy of the commons by educating people, formally enforcing laws against selfish use, or privatizing the resource so that each participant feels the direct impact of her actions.

In the case of our kitchen, we were presented with only a few options. We could educate ourselves to anticipate the escalating behavior in the kitchen, decreasing the delay between the pile of dishes and our recognition of the problem. Perhaps we could increase enforcement by encouraging people to openly communicate their feelings of frustration/annoyance and drive up social stigma. We could even privatize our dish resource, allocating each roommate four dishes to use as he or she pleases; however, since we only had one kitchen sink, it was not easy to privatize the actual cleaning space.

None of these options are easy or comfortable. Communication and intrusive policies can lead to tension and frustration, but that’s what we began with in the first place: tension and frustration through passivity. Alternatively, we can choose persistence and energy and active attention to our constantly unfolding dynamic world. We can confront the annoying realities present in the oscillating systems around us, find their beat, keep our insights at the forefront of our actions, and do the dishes, as we strive toward the better world of tomorrow.



  1. I like the reference to wasting natural resources and the incremental cost of waste not impacting the individual contributor. Analogous to one who is littering the highway; a littered highway seems to grow more litter.

  2. i’m new to systems dynamics and causal loop diagrams. BUT, looking at the arrow from “social stigma of adding to the pile” to “adding to the pile”. Shouldn’t the sign be negative, not positive?

      1. Along that same line, shouldn’t the arrow leading from “incremental impact of adding to the pile” to “social stigma of adding to the pile” be positive, not negative? As far as I understand it is a direct relationship.

      2. Thanks you are so right! When the incremental impact of adding dirty dishes is low, the stigmatization of adding dishes would be low (it’s already a mess anyways so who would judge you?)! I made the change and updated the model. Thanks for your correction.

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