forum discussion #33

Disorder Breeds Discrimination

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Listen to our interview with Siegwart Lindenberg here.

UPDATE: Since broadcasting this story, Dutch scientist Diederik Stapel has admitted to fabricating data in dozens of published studies. Among the possibly tainted reports was one which we reported on here. The World’s Rhitu Chatterjee updated this story on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.

Lindenberg is a cognitive sociologist at Tilburg University and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  He studies how our physical surroundings shape our thoughts and behaviors, and he joined us as a guest in this Science Forum discussion.

If an urban environment is covered with graffiti, are people more likely to litter?  If there is litter on the ground, are people more likely to steal? Lindenberg has conducted controlled experiments of these questions and found that the answer is yes. Continue Reading ...

In a new study published in the journal Science, Lindenberg and colleague Diederik Stapel investigated whether littered and disordered surroundings promote stereotyping. They asked Caucasian train passengers at a railway station in Utrecht to take a survey about their views of Muslims, homosexuals, and the Dutch.

At a time when the railway’s cleaning crew was on strike and the station was a mess, passengers were far more likely to express strong stereotypes than when the station was clean and orderly. During the strike, white passengers were also less likely to sit near a passenger who was black.

See photos from Lindenberg’s study in the slide show below.

(For captions, open the slide show in a new window and click on ‘Show Info’)

Lindenberg believes his study has clear policy implications: “Diagnose environmental disorder early and intervene immediately” to promote social cohesiveness.

Read what people had to say. Feel free to add your own thoughts:

  • Do you agree with Lindenberg’s policy recommendation?
  • If you found a wallet on a dirty downtown street, would you keep the money? Would you do the same if you found the wallet in a clean, upscale neighborhood?
  • How do your physical surroundings shape your views of other people?
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Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? S Lindenberg

    Hi everyone!
    Would you have ever expected that garbage on the sidewalk could make people think in stereotypical terms about others and even discriminate more against members of a minority group?
    Well this is exactly what we found. Physical disorder makes people create order in their minds by making them use very simple categories (all Blacks are X, all Democrats are Y etc). It is THE way of coping with chaos. This implies a very clear message to city governments: recognize early on trouble spots of physical disorder (trash, broken sidewalk, broken windows & cars) and clean up as best and fast as you can. A few years ago, I showed (with a different team of researchers) that by doing this, the city government would also greatly improve people’s willingness to comply with norms and laws.

    • Robert Humphrey

      I wonder if there are more serious implications for situations that create uncertainty, disorder and fear. During the 1923 disastrous earthquake in Japan, Japanese people slaughtered thousands of Koreans and others who did not look Japanese. Obviously your situation was not fraught with danger and fear, but I think when the world seems out of kilt, people will strike out (prejudice and racism is there beneath the surface as you discovered) either out of fear or hatred of those who not of the group. It is not clear in my mind why this happens. Any thoughts? Robert Humphrey Sacramento

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

        Dear Robert,
        an earthquake can create much uncertainty and disorder indeed. We have not studied the role of fear, but we believe that events that break up established certainties are likely to create more stereotypical ways of thinking with the discriminatory behavior attached to such thinking. Mind you such events are not likely to create stereotypes but to activate them. There must have been long established stereotypes about Koreans in Japan. This is different from possible disorder due to complexity, in which education can help one discover order without simplifying the way one thinks.
        Regards, Siegwart Lindenberg

    • Sophia

      I think Constantine had this idea of coping with chaos in his mind when he signed the Edict of Milan in 311 and ushered in a period of toleration of Christians. He calmed the chaos and changed the world.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

        Dear Sohia, I don’t know enough about history to comment intelligently on your remark, but I would say in general that indeed any policy that you create a feeling in the subjects that they are taken seriously and that their plight is understood is likely to contribute to a reduction in stereotyping and discrimination.

        Regards, S.L.

  2. Evelyn

    I completely agree as we are products of our enviornment. Aesthetitcs affect perception of everything around us.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Yes, Evelyn, and I think that it even goes a step further. Symbolic disorder (such as a messy government policy) will also have this effect.

  3. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Fascinating study. Thanks so much for participating in this discussion!

    Of course, not all stereotypes involve negative opinions. I might think that a certain group of people is smart or ambitious. Did you find that disordered environments promote just negative stereotypes… or stereotypes of all sorts?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Indeed, the difference between prejudice and stereotype is that the former is negative and the latter is both positive and negative. However, positive stereotypes about ethnic groups are often only applicable in specific situations (such as cooking, dancing), so that in public places, it is mostly the negative stereotypes that apply (aggressive, or cannot be trusted, or stay away from my children).

  4. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Racial stereotyping seems like such a strange outlet to satisfy one’s need for structure… Do you suppose that, in the presence of disorder, one’s brain is overall more apt to apply categories and exert certainty? So if you gave survey about, say, confidence in global warming or belief in religion, would you also expect to see differences in tidy versus disorderly environments?
    Thanks for an intriguing discussion!
    Elsa

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Dear Elsa,
      you are quite right. But we did not particularly focus on racial stereotyping, but on stereotyping in general (in our study the Dutch also were asked to rate the Dutch on stereotypical traits). We think that physical disorder will make people use more black and white categories, especially when thinking about other people. The evolutionary idea behind this is that when simply categories make you able to act more quickly in situations that may spell potential danger (rather be wrong than sorry). But to be honest, we have not yet studied the difference between categories pertaining to persons and categories pertaining to things. We believe that disorder affects mainly the former but we still have to see whether research bears this out.

      Regards, Siegwart Lindenberg

  5. Stephen Smith

    Following up on Elsa’s comments as well as well as your own regarding Symbolic Disorder, I think of the ‘mess’ that our lawmakers seem to be in these days in trying to balance a national budget. It seems as if this creates even further polarization between the parties, perhaps as they simplify their own belief systems and take an even harder line on otherwise negotiable items. Your thoughts, Dr. Lindenberg?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Dear Stephen, I am inclined to quite agree with you that messy politics is likely to have a similar effect on stereotyping and discrimination as a messy physical environment. However, we are only now in the process of testing this difference between physical and symbolic disorder. So at the moment, this is just an educated guess.

      Regards, SIegwart Lindenberg

  6. It seems to me that your findings dovetail with what I believe to be a broader tendency: bigotry is an outlet for anxiety. Here in the United States, for example, many white working people have long tried to soothe their own insecurities by embracing contempt for certain peoples of color. But this is not only a phenomenon of race. A sizable portion of black Americans, for instance, embrace contempt for gays in response to their own angry sense of powerlessness. The underlying dynamic, I think, is that when people feel vulnerable or not in control of their surroundings (the economy; fear of crime; chaos and messiness in a train station), they soothe themselves with a narrative about “those people” being culpable or inferior. Politicians continue to use such wedge issues effectively.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Yes, Bruce, see my comment on Stephen. However, we have not explicitly studied the role of anxiety. It is possible that anxiety and fear are fed by additional factors than disorder. Here is were we have to have more studies. Quite generally, we would be very content, if our research would provide an extra impulse to put such questions on the research agenda of many behavioral and social scientists.

      Regards, Siegwart Lindenberg

  7. Klaus H Philipsen

    Naturally one has to think of the “orderly” manner in which the Germans executed their holocaust policies and wonder about this study. But then, as far as order can provide a level of comfort and assurance it seems plausible that assured and comforted people are less fearful. And it is fear that breeds racism.

    • Actually, Klaus, I believe that example shows the Nazis using monstrously contrived order precisely as an attempted remedy to the very threatening perceived disorder of the breakdown of the German economy and German global power. You’ll recall it was Germany’s collective inferiority complex, accompanying the fall in Germany’s economic fortunes, that led to the appeal of Hitler’s message and his rise to power. So in that sense the Nazi example of an “ordered” response illustrates, in an exponentially extreme way, the principle shown in the study.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      You are right, being orderly does not mean that you are not stereotyping or discriminating, as there can be other reasons for that besides disorder.

      Regards, S.L.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Indeed, being orderly does not necessarily mean that one does not stereotype or discriminate. There are other reasons besides disorder to do that.

      Regards, S.L.

  8. Stephen Smith

    Thank you, Bruce. That was a beautiful summation of what I was attempting to say. With your permission, I would like to share your words with one of my high school classes tomorrow. This ‘broader tendency’ of ‘bigotry as an outlet for anxiety’ seems quite relevant to their stage of life and learning. Hopefully, at least a few of them will be able to recognize these tendencies, and more importantly, to keep them in check as they arise!

  9. Peter

    Feng Shui Masters have known this for thousands of years. An environment of balance and harmony leads to and supports humans acting/being in balance and harmony.

    Chaos begets chaos.

    Balance begets balance.

    Put someone in a room of chaos (bad Feng Shui) and beta waves dominate.

    Put that same person in a room of balance and harmony (good Feng Shui) and alpha waves dominate.

    Huge difference.

  10. Mike M

    This study reminds me of a quote of Martin Luther King, Jr:
    “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

    This study clearly sheds light on the fact that such menial-seeming tasks as street sweepers, janitorial staff and sanitation workers are a fundamental part of a civil society. Unfortunately, these tend to be low-paying jobs with little if any benefits, typically filled by undocumented workers in the U.S.A. I don’t think the vast majority of Americans (or politicians) realize this.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      Mike, I could not agree with you more. it is penny wise and pound foolish to economize on cleaning up and to look down on those who do clean up.

      Regards,
      S.L.

  11. John Kane

    I heard the NPR report but haven’t read the study. Did the study include minorities who encountered people of their own race/ethnicity in a relatively chaotic or unsettling environment? If not, I don’t see how one could reasonably conclude that racial or ethnic prejudice is involved, rather than mere fear, insecurity, or caution.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

      No, John, we purposefully did not include blacks in the questionnaire (which was about muslims, homosexuals, and the dutch), in order not to focus subjects on racial issues involving blacks as they sat down. In doing so, we can show that the stereotyping is a general tendency in the face of disorder, not just a specific response to a specific group.

      Regards, S.L.

      • John Kane

        Actually, I didn’t say anything about Blacks. Did you determine whether Muslims, for example, engaged in the same protective distancing behavior when they entered a chaotic environment when other Muslims were already seated? If they would do so, that would seem to negate the ethnocentric slant NPR at least put on your findings.

  12. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

    Dear John Kane,
    Sorry it took so long to get to your last contribution. It is important to remember that our research shows that disorder activates stereotypes, it does not create stereotypes. In addition. the discriminatory behavior (if any) depends on the stereotypes. I would know of no stereotype among muslims that would make them sit further apart. In short, we have to know what the stereotypes are in order to predict what the behavior based on stereotypes would be. Does that make sense to you?

    Regards,
    Siegwart Lindenberg

  13. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Siegwart Lindenberg

    Hi everyone,

    thank you for a very interesting discussion. For us, the most important message of our research is that the impact of physical disorder is much stronger than previously believed. It lowers people’s tendency to follow norms, as I could show in 2008, and, as we show in this paper, it tends also to activate stereotypes and behavior based on stereotypes. Such behavior can be discriminating.
    The next step is to find out to what degree (and under what conditions) symbolic disorder (such as confusing economic times, cracks in shared reality) can have similar effects on following norms, stereotyping and discriminatory behavior. When our results on this are out, I hope to joint this forum again and discuss with you. Thanks and good bye for this time.
    Siegwart Lindenberg

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