Dutch researchers show how –
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.