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Rubbish on the streets can lead to discrimination

10 April 2011

Rubbish on the streets makes people think in stereotypes and can even lead to discrimination. This is because in an untidy environment people have a greater need for structure, state the behavioural scientists Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University and Siegwart Lindenberg of the University of Groningen, both members of the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research (TIBER). The professors demonstrated this in a series of experiments, the results of which were published on 8 April in the scientific journal Science.

Could discrimination depend on the state of the living environment? Psychologist Diederik Stapel and sociologist Siegwart Lindenberg suspected it did, and conducted experiments to test their theory. Previous research had revealed that people were more inclined to judge in stereotypes if they had a greater need for structure. Stapel and Lindenberg designed a series of field and laboratory experiments that demonstrated that their suspicion was correct.

In one of the field experiments, the researchers asked forty travellers at Utrecht Central Station to answer a number of questions about the characteristics of minorities in the Netherlands. The test subjects were asked to sit in a room where an African Dutch person or a native Dutch person was also sitting. The experiment was conducted during the cleaning personnel strike and then again later, when the station was clean again. In the rubbish-strewn environment, people’s answers attributed more stereotypical characteristics to minorities than in the clean environment. In addition, in the untidy situation they sat further away from the African Dutch person than from the native Dutch person.

Order in the chaos

A follow-up experiment in a wealthy neighbourhood in a Dutch city revealed that people donated less money to a (fictitious) Fund for Minorities if a bicycle was lying on the street, a car was parked wrongly and a few pavement slabs were disarranged than when the street was neat and tidy. The stereotyping that lies at the heart of the discrimination was even found in a laboratory setting where test subjects were confronted with ‘disorder’ in the form of a number of circles, squares and triangles randomly distributed on a piece of paper.

Thinking in stereotypes is thus often directly related to rubbish on the streets. This is the result of a need for structure that a disorderly environment automatically and subconsciously evokes. Stereotyping is a mechanism that helps people cope with chaos in their environment. Based on their results, the researchers advise policymakers to spot and tackle disorderly environments as quickly as possible in order to prevent discriminatory behaviour.


Reference: Diederik Stapel & Siegwart Lindenberg: Coping with chaos: How disordered contexts promote stereotyping and discrimination, Science, April 2011. 

Note for the press

More information: Prof. S. Lindenberg

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.54 a.m.
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