How Litter Disrupts Civil Society

June 10th, 2011 at 2:26 pm | 6 Comments |

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It seems to really be a case of “Garbage In, recipe Garbage Out” when it comes to ethnic, healing 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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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Nanotek

    “How Litter Disrupts Civil Society”

    industrial pollution is litter

  • stevelaudig

    In the 50s cities were able to afford to clean the streets pretty regularly and I don’t recall litter being a problem. Now the u.s. spends its money blowing up things on the other side of the planet while in Zhongguo street cleanliness is maintained by regular street washings and ladies in orange vests with brooms. The streets in many urban residential areas are swept every day. The streets hosed down once or twice a week in the city of 6.5 million I am presently in. This part of China reminds me of the U.S. I knew in the 50s as a child. Quiet, pleasant, clean and optimistic about the future. I am making no argument beyond street cleanliness.

  • Graychin

    Is litter a problem? Or a symptom?

    When we give our large corporations permission to devastate the commons, should we be surprised that the rest of us are careless about maintaining our roadsides?

  • jakester

    I blame litter on the scumbags who are too lazy and selfish to pick up after themselves.

  • Carney

    Stereotypes are not an over-reaction to external stimuli. They are a result of countless interactions between groups in the real world. While some (the blood libel) are memes based on myths, many if not most are earned, reflections of reality.

    The reason the Netherlands is growing increasingly dirty, noisy, poor, unsafe, and unlike its old pleasant self is not that the occasional union doesn’t clean up the mess; it’s because enormous, overwhelming numbers of utter aliens with radically different behavior patterns and value systems are being allowed to colonize it and transform, that is, ruin, the texture and fabric of everyday life.

    It’s entirely too cute, and in fact desperate and absurd, to labor so hard to find an isolated instance of trash or other unpleasantness not directly attributable to the Muslims there, and then draw broad conclusions that imply that the Muslims there are just as clean, orderly, safe, and truly “Dutch” but have had a false stereotype imposed on them through a series of unfortunate coincidences.