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Can our social judgements and prejudice be influenced by non-social factors? In a neat study recently published in Science, researchers demonstrate just this: prejudice increases with the level of visual disorder.

Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg from Tilburg University asked volunteers to fill out questionnaires that probed their attitudes towards certain social minorities, and where they placed the subjects in either clean or chaotic and dirty surroundings. Subjects (caucasians) at the busy station Utrecht were asked to participate and asked to evaluate statements about Muslims, homosexuals, and Dutch. The researchers  benefited from a current strike by renovation workers in the city. The city streets were dirty and full of waste. The researchers also returned and performed the same test after the strike was over and the station was clean.

In doing this, the researchers found a small but systematic difference in the answers: people’s stereotypes and prejudices were stronger when the surroundings were filthy.

The idea that behavior can be influenced by the surroundings has been proposed earlier by social scientists and criminologists. The “broken window” hypothesis, put forward by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, suggests that people are more likely to commit criminal and anti-social acts when they see signs of of other’s equal misbehaviour – for example in public places with signs of decay and neglect. This was something which at the time motivated a zero-tolerance policy towards graffiti in New York’s subway in the late 1980s (in which Kelling worked as a consultant) and which is shown an improvement in overall safety.

Lindenberg and his colleagues earlier reported an impact on the environment on people’s willingness to break societal and social laws.

Besides the survey the scientists ran an additional test, asking subjects to sit on one of several possible chairs. One of the chairs were already taken by a white or a black person. In the test with the disordered surroundings subjects positioned themselves further away from the black person than the white. In the situation where the station was clean, there was no statistical difference in these distances.

In a follow-up experiment with slightly stronger control over the environment, the researchers found the same effect: the participants were tested here on a street in an “upper society” neighborhood in a Dutch city. In some cases the street was made more chaotic by removing tiles on the ground, and intentionally leaving a car and a bike at disordered locations on the street. Again, it appeared that visual chaos led to a worsening of prejudice and social stereotypes.

It is a nice collection of two small studies that clearly demonstrate an effect, but how are the researchers explaining this effect? Here, I am less convinced: Stapel and Lindenberg suggest that the stereotype effect may be the result of an attempt to compensate for chaos and disorder: maybe the subjects respond to the physical chaos with a kind of mental “catharsis”?

Instead, I contend that this may be another example of an emotional “contagion” effect. Visual chaos and disorder cause negative emotional reaction: seeing a filled garbage can or rotten food is known to engage emotional areas such as the insula and promote aversion behaviors (eg. avoidance). The same brain region is known to be involved in social evaluation.

It is therefore possible that there may be an emotional contagion effect, where an aversive reaction to disgusting surroundings is echoed in other emotional responses, just as if it causes an emotional anchoring effect. This is, of course, pure speculation, and it requires specific testing. But it might be the better explanation.

-Thomas

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