[RETRACTED] Disordered environments promote stereotypes and discrimination [RETRACTED]

By Ed Yong | April 7, 2011 2:00 pm

UPDATE: Diederik Stapel, who led this study, has been accused of fabricating data and has been suspended from his post. It is not clear which of his papers are at stake, but until further details emerge, it would probably be best to take this paper and post with a pinch of salt.

UPDATE 2: This paper has now been officially retracted. As is this post.

In February 2010, cleaners working at Dutch railway stations went on strike for several weeks. Their stations quickly fell to dirtiness and disarray, but most people didn’t mind; public support for the strike was high. But two scientists – Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg from Tilburg University – were particularly delighted. In the growing chaos of the stations, they saw an opportunity to test an intriguing concept – that disorderly environments promote stereotypes and discrimination.

Their big idea is that stereotypes, being a set of simplified categories and judgements, can help people to cope with chaos. They are “a mental cleaning device in the face of disorder”. When our surroundings are full of chaos – be it dirt or uncertainty – we react by seeking order, structure and predictability. Stereotypes, for all their problems, satisfy that need.


To test that, the duo went to Utrecht station after it hadn’t been cleaned for a few days and asked 40 travellers to fill in a questionnaire. Their task was to say how much Dutch, Muslim and homosexual people conform to different personality traits. When the cleaners returned to work, and the station had reverted to its usual spick self, Stapel and Lindenberg repeated their experiment.

They found that the volunteers held more strongly to stereotyped views when they sat in a dirty station, compared to a clean one. For example, they were more likely to rate Muslims as being ‘loyal’ and  ‘aggressive’, gay people as ‘sweet’ and ‘feminine’, and Dutch people as ‘tolerant’ and ‘stingy’. The moods of the different volunteers didn’t differ between the two days, and didn’t affect their behaviour.

Of course, the volunteers could have lied on the questionnaires. But unbeknownst to them, there was a secret element to the study, designed to reveal their true opinions. Stapel and Lindenberg casually invited them to sit on a row of six chairs while they filled in their form. The chairs were empty except for the first one, which was taken by either a white or a black associate (deemed to be equally friendly, attractive and approachable in pre-tests).

On average, the volunteers (all white) sat three chairs away from the black person in a dirty station, and two chairs away from him in a clean station. In both situations, they sat two chairs away from the white person. In the disordered environment, they were more likely to distance themselves from people with a different ethnic background.

This is not the first study to link chaotic environments with bad behaviour. In 2008, I wrote about the work of another Dutch scientist called Kees Keizer, who showed that litter, graffiti and discarded shopping trolleys can increase the likelihood of more littering, trespassing and even theft. It was dramatic confirmation of the ‘Broken Windows Theory’, which suggests that signs of petty crimes, like broken windows, can trigger yet more criminal behaviour. Disorder breeds disorder. Stapel and Lindenberg have extended these results to stereotypes and discrimination.


Their railway station experiment was just the first in a series of five. Next, Stapel and Lindenberg went to a wealthy Dutch neighbourhood and subtly altered the environment, misplacing some pavement tiles, parking a car on the pavement and abandoning a bicycle in the street. They gave 47 volunteers five euros each to fill in the same questionnaire from before; afterwards, they could donate some of that money to a charity called Money for Minorities. A day later, the duo ran the experiment again but with the tiles, car and bicycle arranged in neat and orderly places.

The results mirrored those of the station experiment. When the environment was unkempt, the volunteers expressed more stereotyped views on the questionnaire and they gave less to the charity – €1.70 compared to €2.35 when everything was neat.

Are these differences really down to a need for order and structure? To find out, Stapel and Lindenberg headed back to their laboratory for three more experiments.


They found that people who saw messy pictures, such as bookcases with chaotic stacks, were more likely to cite stereotypes than those who saw orderly pictures (a neatly stacked bookcase) or neutral ones (a chair). The 47 volunteers in this experiment also filled in a different questionnaire designed to measure their need for structure – it asked them how far they agree with statements like “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” or “I need structure”. Those who had the strongest need for structure also made the most stereotyped judgements. Indeed, after adjusting for this need, the link between disorder and stereotypes disappeared.

This worked even if the volunteers weren’t aware that they had seen signs of disorder! In a fourth experiment, Stapel and Lindenberg recruited 58 volunteers and flashed different words at the side of their field of vision. They couldn’t consciously read the words, but they registered them nonetheless. People who saw words like ‘chaos’, ‘anarchy’ and ‘mess’ expressed a stronger desire for structure, and more stereotyped views, than those who saw orderly words like ‘structure’, ‘clarity’ and ‘neat’, or neutral ones like ‘chair’, ‘table’ or ‘ball’.

In a final experiment, Stapel and Lindenberg showed that even abstract signs of disorder could trigger stereotypes. They showed 66 volunteers a sheet of paper with circles, squares and triangles, either neatly arranged or randomly strewn. And as predicted, those that saw the chaotic symbols were more likely to crave structure and show stereotypes.

Together, the five experiments make a compelling package. The results were consistent across five different ways of triggering perceptions of disorder and different measures to judge the volunteers’ reactions. In the duo’s own words:

“The message for policy-makers is clear: One way to fight unwanted stereotyping and discrimination is to diagnose environmental disorder early and to intervene immediately by cleaning up and creating physical order. Signs of disorder such as broken windows, graffiti, and scattered litter will not only increase antisocial behaviour, they will also automatically lead to stereotyping and discrimination. Investing in repair and renovation, and preventing neighborhoods [from falling] into disarray, may be relatively inexpensive and effective ways reduce stereotyping and discrimination.”

Reference: Stapel & Lindenberg. 2011. Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination. Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1201068

More on stereotypes:


Comments (25)

  1. Wow… That is really interesting. I have never thought of that.

  2. What a fascinating study. Reading about it made me wonder what other beliefs are affected by order versus disorder. It’s intuitive that seeing a run-down neighborhood makes one feel OK about adding a bit more litter. The racial stereotyping response is less intuitive. Now I wonder whether one’s physical environment also affects one’s belief in things like religion or evolution or climate change? (Or if accepting a potentially disorderly climate-changed future increases one’s tendency to stereotype! Yikes, the possibilities are endless.) Anyway, I also posted a portion of these musings over on The World Science site, where one of the authors of the study (Siegwart Lindenberg) is online taking questions! Hope you, Ed, and others may feel like chatting with him as well–he’s checking in here: http://ht.ly/4vywE

  3. megan

    But there are lots of people who are normally fair who aren’t organized and cleanly. This probably is more of a negative mood that an environment can set.

  4. While I agree with megan, I have to admit it makes me want to clean my desk. I have long noticed a soothing quality to a tidy house: just tidy, not obsessively neat. Still lived in, but things in their places, and clear counter space – stuff like that. So maybe I should get my house that way.

  5. wow, how interesting! Thanks for having the links to the study and the run through. It’s very fascinating, almost like we need some sort of structure and if it’s not in the surrounding we organise our views instead (more stereotypical and less variation)

    I might need to clean my place better though – like the previous comments have pointed out too :)

  6. Folks, these studies are about influences on behaviour. They’re not all or nothing. The fact that you know someone who was disorganised and not racist doesn’t disprove their conclusion, because that wasn’t their conclusion!

    And they checked for mood – I mentioned that in the fourth paragraph.

  7. D

    clean & orderly environment may not directly alter our perception towards acting on stereotype or any negative situations but it promotes clear mind which helps a person to use better logic. People are bothered, frustrated when things are out of control making us react in a negative way.

    I always put stuff back where i took it from so next time i need it i know where to find it, always makes you feel good when found what you’re looking for.

  8. This is amazing. I am glad that scarce funds are being spent on trying to trigger different behavioral responses between religious groups instead of getting polio vaccines to kids.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. What does this say about Nazis? They were extremely structured and organized.

  10. Ramya

    Amazed to find the coherence between our behaviour and environment. Now I gotta clean my room 😉

  11. An excellent study and excellent reportage (as always).
    I did wonder, however, whether this could be a cultural/learned trait. Would the researchers have obtained the same results if they’d tested hunter gatherers or third-world rural farmers; after all, the natural environment is anything but orderly.
    Also, if disorder promotes a tendency to think in a structured, organised way, maybe it can also enhance such things as logical thinking, mathematical ability, etc. (justification for those untidy desks?).

  12. Adela

    Miss Cellania, I think Nazis was a response to the chaos that followed WWI and they used fear of returning to the shit state as a selling point, “We are all that stands between you and the anarchy.”
    It is very human to impose intolerant order to give a sense of control when one feels overwhelmed.

  13. Tk

    The experiments of Stapel and Lindenberg suggest this causal chain: chaotic environment → craving for psychological order → reliance on stereotypes. Did they explore any relation to how neat the experimental subjects were?

    For example, perhaps the tendency to crave psychological order has a personality component, leading people to keep their homes and offices tidy. Is there, then, any correlation between personal neatness and harbouring stereotypes?

  14. Idris W

    “But there are lots of people who are normally fair who aren’t organized and cleanly.”

    megan, the idea is that those who *crave* order are more likely to stereotype. Someone who doesn’t mind mess is unlikely to crave order.

    Stereotyping is a way to sort people into pigeon holes. This is conceptually very similar to sorting objects: papers in the filing cabinet, pens in the desk-tidy, rubbish in the bin, triangles in the triangle row. Gay people in the cabaret.

    You might also look at it intuitively by asking: are people who don’t mind chaos more tolerant, generally?

  15. Allison Diamond

    How in the world can researchers learn that chaotic environments are related to negative views about race and not address the topic of racism directly? Where do the ideas about race come from? Could it be that whites perceive nonwhites as not belonging, and therefore nonwhites are part of a disordered social environment? Could it be that nonwhites are perceived to be to be dirty or messy?

    The answer for policy makers is not at all clear- it is quite complex and begins with the question: How do we rid a society of racism? We all benefit from clean environments, but if by clean and organized these white people also mean “free of nonwhites,” then policy makers have a lot of work ahead of themselves- and that work has little to do with how quickly litter is picked up.

  16. Nena

    Heh. I find it funny that reading about how stereotyping may be predicted based on cleanliness or disorder leads to more stereotyping of neat vs messy people, on whether or not they are racist or not.

  17. Nena

    By the way, why did they only do the experiment on white people? Are white people the only ones capable of stereotyping?

  18. @Lynda: “Would the researchers have obtained the same results if they’d tested hunter gatherers or third-world rural farmers; after all, the natural environment is anything but orderly.”

    Yes, well, hunter-gatherers and third world rural farmers barely exist. By and large they don’t educate their children, practice birth control, or engage in representative government. Completely consistent with chaos.

  19. TimW

    Perhaps we perceive a disordered environment to be a dangerous one? Making people more wary and prone to fear. Risk adverse. Then you’d be more likely to keep away from “strangers” / people who are different to you. And anyone vaguely correlated with a “dangerous” stereotype.
    Fear leads to stereotypes. One for yoda. And the Daily Mail.

    Perhaps the experiment should be repeated with youths in hoodies!?

  20. This article remembers me of a conversation I had with a urbanist consultant in the 90’s. He had a theory that the degradation of a street starts when the trash is not perfectly collected. In the sequence a homeless person makes a improvised tent at some point of the street. After that, people starts throwing more garbage at the street and in a final stage prostitutes, burglars and drug dealers take ownership of the place. In his theory, you must not permit the trash collection to be halted or not perfectly done and not permit the homeless to install themselves by helping them to reintegrate society or find health/mental care for them. He concluded that it was less expensive to do these measures than to make millionaire projects to recover entire neighborhoods. I found at the time that he had a prejudicious tone, but could feel in my guts that , in someway, it was true.

  21. Michael S. Moore

    When I got to, “…and the station had reverted to its usual *spick* self…,” I thought the whole article was a joke. Had it not been the fact that my partner asked me to read this, I wouldn’t’ve read further. All in all it’s an interesting premise, but could’ve been better presented without this little chuckle.

  22. Interesting. As far as I was aware, “spick” = clean. Apparently, it’s some sort of ethnic slur too. In that case, apologies if anyone was offended, although I’m failing to see how it’s a “chuckle”.

  23. I wonder if cities could pay at risk youth to clean things and if that would reduce thier propensity to commit crime? What an interesting study.

  24. So a good test of this would be that countries/regions/landscapes/towns which are generally more disordered are more discriminatory and that more ordered ones are less so – like, say, the Netherlands and India…oh wait a second…what was the definition of disordered again? …and who were the respondents? Me thinks a cross-cultural sample is needed.

  25. Peter

    I would like to see the inverse of this study. Do people who look at orderly pictures crave disorder? Do racist people become less racist in clean environments? Do graffiti artists become friends with more racists when cleaners are on strike?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.

See More

Collapse bottom bar