Coping with Chaos by Categorizing

Excerpt from “Chaos Promotes Stereotyping,” by Philip Ball, Nature.com, April 7, 2011:

A study shows that messy surroundings also make people more likely to stereotype others.

Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg, social scientists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, asked subjects in messy or orderly everyday environments (a street and a railway station) to complete questionnaires that probed their judgements about certain social groups. They found small but significant and systematic differences in the responses: there was more stereotyping in the disorderly areas than the clean ones…

Study subjects sat further away from someone of another race when the train station was a mess.

In one experiment, passers-by in the busy Utrecht railway station were asked to sit in a row of chairs and answer a questionnaire for the reward of a chocolate bar or an apple. The researchers took advantage of a cleaners' strike that had left the station dirty and litter-strewn to create their messy environment; they returned to do the same testing once the strike was over and the station was clean.

In the questionnaires, participants were asked to rate how much certain social groups — Muslims, homosexuals and Dutch people — conformed to qualities that formed part of positive and negative stereotypes, as well as qualities unrelated to stereotypes. For example, the 'positive' stereotypes for homosexuals were (creative, sweet), the 'negative' were (strange, feminine) and the neutral terms were (impatient, intelligent).

As well as probing these responses, the experiment examined unconscious negative responses to race. All the subjects were white, but when they were asked to sit down, one chair at the end of the row was already occupied by a black or white Dutch person. In the messy station, people sat on average further from the black person than the white one, whereas in the clean station there was no statistical difference…

Stapel and Lindenberg say that stereotyping may be an attempt to mentally compensate for mess: "a way to cope with chaos, a mental cleaning device" that partitions other people neatly into predefined categories.

Read the rest of the article…

See also: Broken Windows Theory