Friday, June 17, 2011

How Litter Disrupts Civil Society, by Robin Tim Weiss at Frum Forum

How Litter Disrupts Civil Society
June 10th, 2011 at 2:26 pm ROBIN TIM WEIS |

It seems to really be a case of “Garbage In, Garbage Out” when it comes to ethnic, racial and social stereotyping.

A recent Dutch study by Diederik A. Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg from the University of Tilburg and Groningen in the Netherlands has shown that cluttered environments can determine our views about the people who live or work in them.

In their study (“Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination”), Stapel and Lindenberg, in two field experiments, demonstrate that “disordered contexts”  — those marked by litter, broken-up sidewalks or even abandoned bicycles — can indeed promote stereotyping and discrimination.

A recent strike by cleaners of the Utrecht train station in the Netherlands provided a unique opportunity for the authors to test the impact of “considerable physical disorder” among rail passengers previously accustomed to more salubrious surroundings.

The study suggests that physical disorder is likely to increase the need for structure and stability, leading to the increased use of highly simplified categories and value judgments — namely, stereotypes. Seen in this light, stereotyping is a way to cope with chaos, a “mental cleaning device” as both authors say.

“When our surroundings are full of chaos — be it dirt or uncertainty — we react by seeking order, structure and predictability,” report Stapel and Lindenberg. “Stereotypes, for all their problems, satisfy that need.”

Now, overstuffed garbage cans in the Netherlands may not explain in its entirety the growing influence of a populist virtuoso Geert Wilders. But these findings underscore how small and relatively trivial changes in our environment can increase the propensity towards populism.

These findings can be viewed as both troubling and promising. If it only takes a few overflowing trashcans and rusty bicycles to stir up populist, fervor we face a volatile future. However, if “little” things — such as a functioning garbage disposal system — can help to ensure social cohesion, then it behooves rational minds to ensure our infrastructures are maintained as well as is practical.

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