Friday, April 08, 2011

Clutter and Stereotypes

It's probably no surprise to most of us that a cluttered space can make a person feel uncomfortable. Our brains are hard-wired to create order out of whatever we encounter. That's why we often can see faces and figures when we look at clouds. It's why we try to create understandable patterns when we're really dealing with random information. We want to interpret the abstract and the unpredictable in ways that are familiar, comfortable, something that makes sense to us. So a disordered environment just doesn't sit well with the way our brains work. Obviously some of us are able to function in more of a mess than others, but it's an unusual person who doesn't find order to be more calming than disorder.

However, a fascinating recent study has found that disorder also can have another effect on our brains. According to an article by Amina Khan in today's LA Times:

"People in messy environments tend to compensate by categorizing people in their minds according to well-known stereotypes, researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands say."

The idea is that we fall back on the comfort of "orderly" stereotypes when we're made uncomfortable by a chaotic environment. The study used a train station during a time when cleaners were on strike and compared responses to questions and situations to the responses received when the station was neat and clean. They also experimented by questioning subjects in front of a house in an affluent neighborhood when a few items made the exterior look uncared for and again when the house looked as tidy as would be expected. In both cases, responses revealed significant differences in the amount of stereotyping done by the subjects. In addition:

"Lab experiments further confirmed that when faced with images of chaos — be it a messy room or a random scattering of triangles and circles — volunteers rated themselves higher on a scale measuring their personal need for structure. When they were allowed to express stereotypical feelings immediately after seeing those disordered pictures, however, their 'personal need for structure' scores were lower. Stereotyping satisfied that need, said [social psychologist Diederik Stapel, the study's lead author]."

The conclusions: the need for order matters even more than we knew it did and it can have unexpected effects on our thoughts, perhaps even our behavior. Does this mean that if we could unclutter everyone on Earth, we might at last find world peace? Well, that may be stretching it a bit, but it couldn't hurt!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Hazel Bregazzi at stock.xchng


Ariane Benefit said...

wow...once again Cynthia you have outdone yourself with a truly fascinating and intriguing article....thanks so much for sharing this...

In my programs, I teach how to use "display" to design your own attention and behavior triggers, because as you know "how" you look at things affects the way you feel as much as - if not more than -"what" you look at.

This article goes even deeper to show how what you look at can affect your own perception of what you "need"

Most human needs are not "stable" in intensity or in how they need to be fulfilled, they are cyclical and situational...but what I love about this insight is how it demonstrates that our "perception" of needs can be so inaccurate!

It Underlines the importance of asking questions and "testing" to verify your TRUE needs....

Love it. Anything that will get people to think twice about their assumptions, predictions and stereotypes is a powerful thing.

Thank you again!!!

Bryce said...

Aha! This explains why, after watching "Hoarders" on A&E, I have this irresistible urge to clean my house!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Bryce: You know, you really may be on to something. I feel the same way!

Ariane: Thank you! I agree that our perceptions are frequently off the mark. What I found particularly interesting about this article was the indication of a biological connection as opposed to a sociological connection with perception and stereotyping. We sometimes seem to forget that humans respond in certain ways just because we're human!