When I moved across the country from Miami, FL, to Boulder, CO, I noticed a fundamental change in my environment. Driving on the roads, no one was honking, screaming, or flipping middle fingers. At concerts and bars, after I lost my phone or wallet, they turned up in the lost and found. When I missed my stop on the city bus, every passenger offered either a guide or a ride back home. This kind-hearted and compassionate demeanor confused the shit out of me.
Where I grew up, road rage is customary, misplaced phones are mainly stolen, and city bus passengers are far more likely to harass than help you. This drastic difference in temperaments between townsfolk and city slickers made me wonder: do cities create assholes? And according to a multitude of urban psychology studies, they definitely do.
That is, city-dwellers have cultivated a reputation for being callous, self-absorbed, and indifferent to strangers in need — yet this isn’t necessarily an indication of moral depravity, but more of a by-product of their culture. Perhaps the most prevalent example would be city folk’s societal tendency to witness blatant wrongdoings, but do nothing to defend the victims.
To illustrate this indifference, Casey Neistat filmed himself attempting to steal his own bike on busy Manhattan sidewalks. As he attacked his lock with hacksaws and power tools, dozens of pedestrians hurried by. Not a single onlooker intervened.
“People are so busy that we keep our heads down and go to work,” Neistat laments in his video. “People are so caught up in their own life that they’re not concerned with yours.”
Neistat’s experiment demonstrates a common incidence in urban environments, known as the Bystander Effect, which can explain eyewitness’ failure to react. The Bystander Effect is a proven social phenomenon that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. In defense of this disregard, psychologist Dr. Harold Takooshian offers four alternative explanations that observers of wrongdoing don’t intervene.
The first is that passerbys may not even notice the misbehavior. The incessant hustle and bustle within cities overloads inhabitants with stimuli, forcing them to filter a lot of things out. The second excuse is that they may recognize wrongdoing, but what’s happening is ambiguous, so they actively ignore it. They’ll tell themselves, “why would someone so shamelessly commit a crime in a busy city center? There must be an innocent explanation!” The third is that people notice it, but they don’t know what to do. And the fourth rationalization is founded in fear. Cities have a notoriety for being a bit dangerous, and getting involved could put the good samaritan in harm’s way.
Will Doig, a cultural columnist for Salon, claims that while cities may make people meaner, this doesn’t indicate that urban inhabitants lack a moral compass. Rather, they’re simply fitting in with the societal norms of their cities. In many modest rural communities, social obligations take priority over individual achievement. But in major metropolises like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, “individual achievement is more highly valued, and the cultural norm is to sort of get where you're going and not spend too much time interacting with other people,” Doig explains.
When an exceedingly dense population occupies one small space, polite social interactions and kindness toward strangers become an anomaly. But it’s not fair to blame this on the flawed character of city citizens. Urbanites have their own distractions, social dynamics, and sense of urgency to adhere to.
Their callous selfishness may not make for an inviting environment, but that’s probably for the best. No need to attract more visitors when there’s already too many goddamned people.