Living in a City Can Change How You View the Future

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Living in a city affects more than just your commute and your ability to find falafel at 3 a.m. It also has a significant impact on your mindset, according to a new study highlighted by BPS Research Digest.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers led by Oliver Sng of the University of Michigan found that density can make people more patient in the grand scheme of things—adopting what’s called a “slow life history” strategy that focuses on the future rather than the present moment.

The idea of life history strategies is that when animals (including humans) can expect to live longer, they tend to become sexually mature later, have fewer offspring, and invest more in those offspring. By contrast, shorter life expectancies lead to earlier sexual maturation, younger ages of first reproduction (as in, people having children earlier in life), and greater numbers of offspring overall. The former is indicative of a slow life history strategy, while the latter is a fast life history strategy. Essentially, if you don’t expect to live that long, you’re likely to want to hit those life milestones like having kids a lot earlier than someone who, say, thinks they’ll live to be age 90.

The present study approached the question of how area density might affect life history strategies through existing data and several experiments in the lab. They compared the density of both countries and U.S. states with data on some of the variables associated with life history strategies, like birth rates, sexual behavior, the age at which people have their first children, how much people invest in their education and that of their children, and other indicators of a future-oriented mindset. They found that residents of both denser countries and denser states married later, had fewer children, had lower teenage birth rates, and had higher rates of preschool enrollment and retirement investment (indicators of parental investment and a future-oriented mindset, respectively).

In the experimental part of the study, the researchers brought people into the lab and prompted them to think about population density in a few ways: Some read articles about how the U.S. is becoming denser and cities more crowded with people while others listened to audio recordings of crowds of people chattering. Then, they answered survey questions about topics like their desire to have children, whether they would spend money and time on education now to get a higher paying job later, or whether they would wait multiple days to receive a larger reward or take a smaller reward in the immediate future.

The researchers found that across all six experiments, people exhibited signs of slower life history strategies when confronted with higher population density. They hypothesize that this might be the case because in a dense city, people have to compete more for resources, and investing in education and spending more time raising fewer kids can lead to being a more competitive member of society.

The study, however, only looked at population data at the national and state levels, and the density of towns and cities can vary a fair amount within states. Los Angeles is very dense, but parts of California are quite rural. The same goes for New York City versus much of the rest of the state. Subsequent research could go a long way in refining how density affects psychology, if it took a finer-grained approach to the topic.

However, we do know that living in urban areas can affect our minds and bodies in other ways, too. Greater green spaces are associated with less aggression, while living in a dense urban place influences how the brain processes stress. Since much of the research on urban psychology has found that living in a city is associated with greater risk of mental illness, though, this is an unusual bright spot in psychological literature for city lovers.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]