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