neuroscience | March 10, 2011

Jonah Lehrer Asks: Does Living in a City Make You a Better Person?

Following up on his recent New York Times Magazine profile of Geoffrey West — the physicist who has solved the problem of the city — Jonah Lehrer now asks: “Are people nicer in cities?” Jonah first discusses superlinear scaling, which measures the increased output of people living in large urban centers. For instance, a person who lives in a city of one million is more innovative and productive than a person living in a city onf five hundred thousand. However, that person is also more prone to the bad stuff: being mugged, getting shot. “This is a tradeoff that every city dweller understands,” Jonah writes. He then looks at prosocial behavior in cities and whether, indeed, cities make people nicer.

Jonah Lehrer from Wired’s The Frontal Cortex:
How do cities influence altruism? Do metropolitan areas make us more charitable? Or more cynical? These questions are the subject of an interesting new paper in Physica A by Samuel Arbesman and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School. (Thanks to Paul Kedrosky for the tip.) The researchers investigated a number of different prosocial behaviors for which there existed reliable data, including living and deceased organ donation, voting, and number of contributors to political campaigns.

What’s most interesting is what they did not find: prosocial behavior does not obey a single statistical pattern. Unlike the socioeconomic variables studied by West and Bettencourt, people don’t become significantly more likely to vote when living in bigger cities, and they actually become slightly less likely to donate a kidney. However, they do become much more likely to give money to a campaign. This data echoes previous work which showed similarly contradictory findings. For instance, studies show that people in big cities are more likely to return lost letters, while they’re less likely to assist random strangers on the street.
Photo above is by Viva Vivanista via Flickr, CC

Read more about keynote speaker Jonah Lehrer