Oh the communal fridge! Why does it always, always get so messy?
Mikey Nicholson

30 May 2016 - 11:50 AM  UPDATED 1 Dec 2017 - 11:58 AM

Do you know what the state of your fridge is at this very moment? Chances are that if you live in a share house or work in an office that sentence has already sent chills downs your spine.



There are even stories of stolen sandwiches and lunches going missing. HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN!?

While we could set traps and hidden cameras to catch the folk who can’t properly use communal fridges, we thought it would much more interesting to check in with academia to find out if there’s actually a reason some people are hardwired to maintain sanitary fridges and others are not.

The University of Adelaide’s Professor Ralph-C Bayer, who is the director of the Adelaide Laboratory for Experimental Economics (AdLab), has thoughts on the matter of dirty fridges  in shared spaces. “The situation is a so-called social dilemma, where a group would be best off if everybody did the right thing (cleaning), but individually the benefit from cleaning up is smaller than the cost,” he explains to SBS. “So an individual who only cares about him/herself from a rationality standpoint would not clean and hope that others are doing it.


"The situation is a so called social dilemma, where a group would be best off if everybody did the right thing (cleaning), but individually the benefit from cleaning up is smaller than the cost. So an individual who only cares about him/herself ... would not clean and hope that others are doing it."


"Some people who have some preferences for social efficiency  - here, who care about the outcome for the group, a clean communal kitchen - are initially happy to clean. However, once these individuals see that others don’t pull their weight their concern for the common good wanes as well and they stop cleaning. We say that these individuals are reciprocal; they are willing to help the common good as long as others do." This means, he says, that a communal space is reasonably clean at the beginning but "once the 'good guys' withdraw their concern" it becomes quite dirty or messy.

Sure, an off tub of yoghurt here, a mouldy forgotten lunch there, most people can cope with. But what about those dastardly folk who STEAL lunches? “Individual rationality would say that if you like the lunch of somebody else and the likelihood that you will be caught is very slim, then you have an incentive to do it. Some social norms should counter this. People will probably be more likely to eat somebody else’s lunch if they do not know whose lunch it is, since the negative impact the theft will have has no face. If people know who they are impacting they are less likely to do it. Theft with low impact on others will probably happen a lot (like using somebody else’s milk, etcetera)” In short, put a photo of your face on every piece of food you place in the fridge.

But where there is good will, there is hope and Professor Bayer has advice for those wanting to restore order in the office kitchen. “We need to find a way to prevent the unravelling of cooperation, because the good guys get upset by the bad guys and therefore stop cleaning. Peer punishment for non-cooperation works quite well. So it would be necessary to establish a social norm which means that deviations from it lead to some social punishment. For this non-compliance with the norm needs to be observable.”

“Based on my own work on endogenous group formation and cooperation, I would use the following rule. The people who are using a fridge/kitchen can by majority vote ban somebody from using the facilities for a certain period. Typically such a threat of pear punishment will after a couple of incidents where somebody gets banned lead to very high to full compliance, such that the punishment actually does not have to be used again.”

Food for thought. Now has anyone cleaned out our fridge yet?


What are your horror fridge stories or tips for maintaining communal fridges?

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