Living in Big Cities Makes People Less Kind and Caring to Strangers

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Living in Big Cities Makes People Less Kind and Caring to Strangers

Living in the city have a higher rates of mental illnesses and emotional disorders / Photo by Getty Images


A recent research by University of Miami psychology researchers of anonymous interactions suggests that living in large cities where there are millions of strangers can make people less kind and generous to others. This is mainly in situations where such cooperative behavior would not benefit them. For example, it would be difficult for a person to tip a waiter in a restaurant if they are sure that they will never come to that restaurant again. This study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Our Ingrained Cooperative Spirit Is a Remnant of Our Evolutionary Past

According to researchers at the University of Miami's Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory, human beings are taught how to be generous and fair to everyone when they live in rural areas together with their families. However, this behavior is completely “switched off” when the same people encounter strangers. The findings of this research support the theory that “Our ingrained cooperative spirit is a remnant of our evolutionary past.”

When people live in small groups, they know every person in their social circle. Since we never know who we might need help from, we end up automatizing the decision to be kind out of self-interest.  At this time, the mind has already evolved into thinking that what goes around comes around. The reason people stop being friendly to strangers is that they know that there is no payback, either positive or negative.

The Behavior of Strangers in a Social Environment

To demonstrate this point, the researchers exposed two hundred volunteers to a social setting. In this environment, there would be no punishment or reward for how they treated others. The researchers tracked how their behavior changed over time. The volunteers who came to the laboratory in small groups but at separate times were asked to play three games. These games required them to make decisions about investing money and sharing the profits with the rest of the people in the room and use some for charity.

In the first game, the behavior of the participants could be predicted since they based their actions on their habits and everyday experiences. They shared the profits they had made from the investment equally with strangers while half of the money went to charity. Their return visit was scheduled a month later. It was observed that they were not as generous as the first visit. The incentives they distributed were twenty percent less. In the third visit, the participants ended up sitting alone with headphones and not interacting with each other. They also made their decisions privately.


The assumption that you will never meet the person again leads people to mistreat each other / Photo by Getty Images


Relationship to Real Life Situations

According to the researchers, this experiment was quite similar to the situations people find themselves in real life. The participants realize the rules are different and being generous to strangers has no consequences. For example, if you share an apple with a stranger in the streets, they might not thank you, and most probably will not be there to help you in the future. On the other hand, if you fail to share the apple, people might think that you are stingy, but that will not affect you in any way. After all, they are strangers.

McCullough explains that human being evolved in a world where there were no strangers. A knew B. B knew A. if we did not know somebody directly, we knew someone they know, for example, A knows C because B knows C. today, urbanization has changed everything. People have moved from the rural areas to the urban areas where they are surrounded by billions of people they do not know. It has caused people to mistreat each other because of the assumption that you will never meet that person again and you can get away with it.

The City Is Full of Uncaring Crowds

These days, more than half of the world’s population is living in the city. Urban life is quite good because you get to meet new people, make new friends, create a network and get hold of different opportunities. However, research has shown that city life might not be as good as people think. City populations tend to have higher rates of mental illnesses and emotional disorders when compared to the people living in rural areas. Also, the polluted air is interfering with our physical health. The dangerous air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide are causing lung cancer, asthma, and heart diseases. The noise is also too much to handle.

The most worrying thing about city life, as demonstrated in this study, is the number of uncaring people on the streets. Even though you are not alone in the city, the billions of strangers might never offer you the help or the support that you need. Remember that everyone is in a hurry worrying about their own life. You will be stabbed to death, and people will stand there and watch. This is one of the reasons why crime in the city has been called into question. People are less caring in large groups than they are in small groups.