Monday, April 11, 2011

Chaos promotes prejudice

Here’s my latest news story for Nature, pre-editing.

A disorderly environment makes people more inclined to put others in boxes.

Messy surroundings make us more apt to stereotype people, according to a new study by a pair of social scientists in the Netherlands.

Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg of Tilburg University asked subjects to complete questionnaires that probed their judgements about certain social groups while in everyday environments (a street and a railway station) that were either messy or clean and orderly. They found small but significant and systematic differences in the responses: there was more stereotyping in the former cases than the latter.

The researchers say that social discrimination could therefore be counteracted by diagnosing and removing signs of disorder and decay in public environments. They report their findings in Science today [1].

Psychologist David Schneider of Rice University in Houston, Texas, a specialist in stereotyping, calls this “an excellent piece of work which speaks not only to a possibly important environmental cause, but also supports a major potential theoretical explanation for some forms of prejudice.”

The influence of environment on behaviour has long been suspected by social scientists and criminologists. The ‘broken windows’ hypothesis of sociologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling supposes that people are more likely to commit criminal and anti-social acts when they see evidence of others having done so – for example, in public places with signs of decay and neglect.

This idea motivated the famous zero-tolerance policy on graffiti on the New York subway in the late 1980s (on which Kelling acted as a consultant), which is credited with a role in improving the safety of the network. Lindenberg and his coworkers conducted experiments in Dutch urban settings in 2008 that supported an influence of the surroundings on people’s readiness to act unlawfully or antisocially [2].

But could evidence of social decay, even at the mild level of littering, also affect our unconscious discriminatory attitudes towards other people? To test that possibility, Stapel and Lindenberg devised a variety of disorderly environments in which to test these attitudes.

In their questionnaires, participants were asked for example to rate Muslims, homosexuals and Dutch people according to various positive, negative and unrelated stereotypes. For example, the respective stereotypes for homosexuals were (creative, sweet), (strange, feminine) and (impatient, intelligent).

In one experiment, passers-by in the busy Utrecht railway station were asked to participate by coming to sit in a row of chairs, for the reward of a candy bar or an apple. The researchers took advantage of a cleaners’ strike, which had left the station dirty and litter-strewn. They then returned to do the same testing after the strike was over and the station was clean.

As well as probing these responses, the experiment examined unconscious negative responses to race. All the participants were white, while one place at the end of the row of chairs was already taken by a black or white Dutch person. In the messy station, people sat on average further from the black person than the white one, while in the clean station there was no statistical difference in these distances.

In another experiment, the researchers aimed to eliminate differences in cleanliness of the environments while preserving the disorder. The participants were approached on a street in an affluent Dutch city. But in one case the street had been made more disorderly by the removal of a few paving slabs and the addition of a badly parked car and an ‘abandoned’ bicycle. Again, disorder boosted stereotyping.

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

In support of that idea, they showed participants pictures of disorderly and orderly situations, such as a bookcase with dishevelled and regularly stacked books, before asking them to complete both the stereotyping survey and another one that probed their perceived need for structure, including questions such as “I do not like situations that are uncertain”. Both stereotyping and the need for structure were higher in people viewing the disorderly pictures.

Sociologist Robert Sampson of Harvard University says that the study is “clever and well done”, but is cautious about how to interpret the results. “Disorder is not necessarily chaotic’, he says, “and is subject to different social meanings in ongoing or non-manipulated environments. There are considerable subjective variations within the same residential environment on how disorder is rated – the social context matters.”

Therefore, Sampson says, “once we get out of the lab or temporarily induced settings and consider the everyday contexts in which people live and interact, we cannot simply assume that interventions to clean up disorder will have invariant effects.” 

Schneider agrees that the implications of the work for public policy are not yet clear. One question we’d need to answer is how long these kinds of effects last”, he says. “There is a possibility that people may quickly adapt to disorder. So I would be very wary of concluding that people who live in unclean and disordered areas are more prejudiced because of that.” Stapel acknowledges this: “people who constantly live in disorder get used to it and will not show the effects we find. Disorder in our definition is something that is unexpected.”

1. D. A. Stapel & S. Lindenberg, Science 332, 251-253 (2011).
2. K. Keizer, S. Lindenberg & L. Steg, Science 322, 1681 (2008).

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