April 7, 2011 / 6:02 PM / 6 years ago

Study finds messy streets increase discrimination

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Dutch scientists have found that a messy environment can make people long for order and inspire them to simplify or categorize things in their minds.

As a result, people may be more likely to stereotype and discriminate against others when the world around them is in disarray, the researchers said in a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg of Tilburg University in the Netherlands showed this effect with two field experiments and a series of laboratory studies, and they say the message to policymakers is clear:

Keeping neighborhoods clean and tidy, and investing in repair and renovation may help combat discrimination in society.

During a cleaners' strike at a train station, when litter and rubbish was strewn about the floor, the researchers asked 40 white Caucasian passers by to sit anywhere in a row of chairs and complete a survey about stereotypes. The first chair in the row was occupied by a black person.

The researchers then repeated this exercise the following day after the train station had been cleaned up, and found that travelers generally chose to sit further away from the person in the first chair when the station was messy, compared to when it was clean.

"In the orderly condition they sat equally close to a white or a black person, and in the disorderly condition they sat significantly further away from the black person than from the white people," Lindenberg said in an interview with Science.

Stapel and Lindenberg then hit the streets, polling 47 passers by about their stereotypes. During the first round of interviews, tiles were removed from the pavements, a car was parked on the curb and a bicycle was left in the street. But on the second day, the street was cleaned up to make it look neat and orderly.

The scientists found passers by discriminated against others more and chose to donate less to a "Money for Minorities" fund when the were on the messy street, compared to the clean street.

Finally, the researchers performed a series of laboratory experiments to confirm that these messy environments had inspired people to quickly classify and stereotype others.

They showed a group of volunteers pictures, symbols and words that were meant to evoke feelings of order, disorder or neutrality. They also questioned the volunteers to gauge their need for structure in their lives, and assessed their stereotypes with the same survey used in the field experiments.

The results suggested that disordered environments can inspire people to hastily classify things in their minds, often leading to discrimination.

"Stereotyping is a way of dealing with disorder," Lindenberg said.

Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Paul Casciato

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