A tendency towards racism, homophobia and scorning people who don’t fit in might spring from the same source as a flash of irritation arising from the sight of a picture hanging crookedly on a wall.
That’s the curious implication of findings collated from a series of eight studies using participants in the US and China that find a strong correlation between negative reactions to disrupted visual patterns and to social outsiders.
In other words, there may be a connection between feeling unaccountably annoyed that in a row of triangles one is upside down, and feeling angry at the sight of a gay person, or a Muslim, an African American – or, indeed, any individual who does not fit unobtrusively within a particular observer’s idea of a social norm.
Psychologists Anton Gollwitzer , Julia Marshall, Yimeng Wang and John Bargh, all from Yale University in the United States, set up eight studies, involving children and adults, to probe for links between a dislike of incomplete patterns and the tendency to stigmatise individuals regarded as different.
The work was based on solid foundations of previous research. There have been several studies that show very young children have a preference for symmetrical patterns against asymmetrical shape. There is also considerable evidence to show that kids as young as four can express dislike towards other children who are markedly different to themselves and their peers. (Obese youngsters, for instance, often cop the brunt of peer abuse because they stand out from the crowd.)
Gollwitzer and colleagues also note that terms such as “strange” and “weird” are used to negatively describe both incomplete visual patterns and unusual individuals.
They also cite a 2016 study – led by Tyler Okimoto of the University of Queensland Business School in Australia – that found social attitudes could be predicted by a person’s dislike of imperfect shapes. In this research, people were asked to look at some geometric figures and indicate to what extent they conformed to “perfect” shapes, such as circles or triangles.
Okimoto and colleagues found that people with conservative ideologies were much more sensitive to the difference between perfect and imperfect than people with more liberal worldviews.
In the latest research, the Yale psychologists recruited several hundred people, using Amazon’s crowdsourcing internet service Mechanical Turk. They then divided them into cohorts and subjected them to several tests designed to uncover responses to pattern and social deviance.
They found that the link between the two types of reaction was consistent and robust – and that results in one area – say being annoyed by an out-of-place triangle – was a strong predictor of results in another – say, being a critical of a gay person in the immediate vicinity.
“Although non-social pattern deviancy and social deviancy judgements may seem distinct given their differing domains, people’s aversion towards non-social pattern deviancy and social deviancy consistently overlapped,” they write.
“These findings raise the possibility that pattern deviancy aversion plays an important role in stigmatisation and prejudice.”
The findings are important because they suggest that traditional explanations of prejudice – that it arises from a sense of danger or some deeply embedded evolutionary flight-or-fight response – may not be valid. Instead, the urge to discriminate against minorities and vulnerable people may spring from nothing more profound (or justifiable) than a dislike of order.
“People tend to rationalise such prejudice by claiming that negatively deviant individuals, such as the mentally ill, are dangerous and that positively deviant individuals, such as highly competent people, are cold and untrustworthy,” the researchers conclude.
“The research presented here, however, raises the possibility that a simple dislike of pattern deviancy plays a role in such prejudice.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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