Picture yourself in a well-kept room — pictures neatly hung on walls, books organized on a shelf, floors clear of junk. Now sit yourself in a room with crooked pictures, scattered books and dirty laundry on the floor. Feeling any different?
In the second room, you might be more apt to keep your distance from a person of another race, believe that Muslims are aggressive or think that gay people are creative, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.
The idea, said researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, is that people in messy environments tend to compensate for that disorder by categorizing people in their minds according to well-known stereotypes.
Testing the relationship between disorder and discrimination in real-life situations was no easy feat, said social psychologist Diederik Stapel, the study's lead author. But he got lucky — the cleaners at the bustling Utrecht train station went on strike, leaving disorder in their wake.
"It looked like a terrible mess," said study coauthor Siegwart Lindenberg, a cognitive sociologist. "Lots of paper cups, chewed-up pieces of pizza, napkins, apple cores — you name it — just lying around."
It was the perfect setup. The two researchers canvassed the station, asking 40 travelers (all of them white) to fill out surveys about Muslims, homosexuals and Dutch people while in the messy train station. Respondents were asked to rate how accurate they thought both positive and negative stereotypes were for each group.
The researchers asked the travelers to sit down while filling out the survey, noting how far the survey-taker chose to sit from a man positioned at one end of the row. That man was either black or white.
When the strike ended a few days later, the researchers repeated the experiments in the newly tidy station.
The result: When the station was messy, travelers agreed with stereotypes — both positive and negative — about 10% more strongly. They also sat about 25% farther from a black man than they did from a white man.
To pinpoint whether it was disorder or dirtiness that heightened people's affinity for stereotypes, the researchers went to an affluent neighborhood. They loosened pavement tiles, parked Stapel's old red Subaru Legacy with two wheels on the sidewalk and left a bicycle lying on the ground, as if abandoned. They asked 47 passersby the same questions about Muslims, gays and Dutch people. They also asked people to donate to a "Money for Minorities" fund.
They repeated the experiment after replacing the tiles, reparking the car and righting the bicycle. Again, they found that people in the disorderly environment stereotyped more. They also gave less money to the minorities fund — 1.70 euros, on average, compared to 2.35 euros for people approached when the street was tidy.
Lab experiments further confirmed that when faced with images of chaos — be it a messy room or a random scattering of triangles and circles — volunteers rated themselves higher on a scale measuring their personal need for structure. When they were allowed to express stereotypical feelings immediately after seeing those disordered pictures, however, their "personal need for structure" scores were lower. Stereotyping satisfied that need, Stapel said.
"This need for order matters a lot more than we might have thought," said Aaron Kay, a social psychologist at Duke University who was not involved in the study. Disorder pushes people to find more structure in their lives, he said, noting: "Fishermen who fish on more treacherous seas are more likely to believe in a spiritual God."