Population

High Population Density Just Might Be Good for You

For people, unlike rats, the human 'behavioral sink' seems to be greater creativity, not pathological collapse.

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CalhounRat133NIH
NIH

High population density might induce better habits, according to some new research at the University of Michigan. If so, that's good news for the residents of an ever more highly populated world—and a big surprise for a generation of social critics.

"Popollution" threatens to destroy the planet, Larry Gordon warned in his 1982 presidential address to the American Public Health Association. "When we consider the problems of hunger, poverty, depletion of resources, and overcrowding among the residents of our planet today, the future of human welfare looks grim indeed," he declared.

Overcrowding was a big concern for those 20th-century prophets of population doom. In 1962, National Institute of Mental Health researcher John Calhoun published an influential article, "Population Density and Social Pathology," in Scientific American. Calhoun had conducted experiments in which he monitored overcrowded rats. As population density increased, female rats became less able to carry pregnancies to full term—and they so neglected the pups that were born that most died. Calhoun also documented increasing behavioral disturbances among the male rats, ranging "from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal." All of these pathologies amounted to a "behavioral sink" in which infant mortality ran as high as 96 percent.

Calhoun's work was cited both by professional researchers and by overpopulation popularizers. Gordon, for example, argued that "too many members of the human species are already being destroyed by violence in overpopulated areas in the same manner as suggested by laboratory research utilizing other animals." In his 1961 book The City in History, the anti-modernist critic Lewis Mumford cited "scientific experiments in rats—for when they are placed in equally congested quarters, they exhibit the same symptoms of stress, alienation, hostility, sexual perversion, parental incompetence, and rabid violence that we now find in the Megapolis."

In The Pump House Gang (1968), the hipster journalist Tom Wolfe referenced Calhoun's behavioral sink: "Overcrowding gets the adrenalin going, and the adrenalin gets them hyped up. And here they are, hyped up, turning bilious, nephritic, queer, autistic, sadistic, barren, batty, sloppy, hot-in-the-pants, chancred-on-the-flankers, leering, puling, numb…" And in his 1968 screed The Population Bomb, the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich declared that he had come to emotionally understand the population explosion "one stinking hot night in Delhi" during a taxi ride to his hotel. "The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people….[T]he dust, the noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish prospect."

The theme of dystopian overcrowding inspired many popular books in the 1960s and 1970s, note the London School of Economics historians Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams. Among the texts they cite are Terracide (1970), by Ron M. Linton; My Petition for More Space (1974), by John Hersey; and the novels Make Room! Make Room! (1966), by Harry Harrison; Logan's Run (1967), by William Nolan and George Johnson; and Stand on Zanzibar (1968), by John Brunner.

But now, in stark contrast to these visions of chaos and collapse, new research suggests that increased population density isn't a disaster at all. Indeed, it's channeling human efforts and aspirations in productive directions. So says a report by a team of researchers led by Oliver Sng, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan.

In "The Crowded Life Is a Slow Life," a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sng and his colleagues probe how life history strategies change as population densities increase. "Life history" involves the tradeoffs individual organisms must make as they allocate effort and time to such tasks as growth, bodily maintenance, and reproduction. Some species, such as rats, are subject to high levels of predation and live only a short while; given their ecological niche, rats have evolved to pursue a fast life history strategy, in which they mature rapidly, bear lots of offspring, and invest little in each one. Elephants, on the other hand, are less subject to predators and live longer, so they follow a slow life history strategy in which they mature over a longer time and have fewer offspring, in which they invest more time and care.

Sng and his colleagues asked, Does human life history strategy shift when population density increases? For most species, low density generally leads to faster reproduction and higher density slows reproduction, because more parental investment is needed to boost the chances that offspring will become competitive enough to survive and reproduce. Their results with regard to how people behave are very preliminary, but nonetheless intriguing.

First, the researchers probed how future orientation, investment in education, long-term mating orientation, marriage age, fertility, and parental investment shift as density increases among people. They compared these variables across countries and then across U.S. states with differing population densities. They devised various life history indicators based on data from such sources as the sociosexual orientation inventory from 48 countries, life expectancy, adolescent birth rates, preprimary school enrollment, future orientation, and so forth. The researchers then compared the indicators' prevalence and strength across nations to see how they vary with population density. To focus on the effects of population density, they use various statistical techniques to remove the confounding effects of wealth and urbanization.

They found that people living in countries and states with denser populations are more likely, on average, to pursue a slow life history strategy. That is, they have fewer sexual partners, get married later, postpone children, have fewer children, invest more in education for both themselves and their kids, and save more for retirement.

Next Sng and his colleagues conducted several experiments to compare the future orientation of subjects who feel crowded to subjects who had neutral experiences. In one experiment, a set of students was assigned to read a rather claustrophobic article titled "The Crowded Life: Too Many, Too Much" and the comparison group did not. To gage their future time orientation, both groups where asked questions like, "Would you want to get $100 tomorrow or $150 90 days from now?" The group that read the article was more likely to say that they were more inclined to wait for the larger reward.

In another experiment, the researchers played sound clips lasting one minute; one with loud crowd conversational hubbub and another with white noise. In this case, those hearing the crowd noises marginally opted to wait for a larger cash reward.

In the last two experiments, the researchers conducted experiments to see if inducing feelings of crowdedness would result in shifts among experimental subjects on mating, parenting, and educational strategies. Since individuals would be at various stages of their life histories, the experimenters sorted the subjects by age. In one experiment, they had subjects read two different versions of "The Crowded Life" essay; one discussing overpopulation with respect to people and other with squirrels. Younger subjects who read about growing crowds of people tended to choose subsequent survey items suggesting that they would prefer to have fewer sexual partners and spend more time with them. Older subjects cued with increasing density expressed a preference for fewer children and more schooling for them.

These very preliminary results need to be taken with good-sized helping of salt, but they are suggestive. As the researchers conclude, "Our findings may hold important societal implications. As populations worldwide continue to grow, density continues to increase. One might thus predict, all else equal, a global trend toward slower life history strategies."

At the time Calhoun was running his rat experiments, world population stood at just over 3 billion people. Today there are 7.4 billion of us living on Earth. As of yet, our "overcrowded" world has not spun out of control. In fact, quite the opposite: Absolute poverty globally has fallen below 10 percent for the first time in history and large-scale violence is arguably hovering around its lowest level ever. For people, unlike rats, the human "behavioral sink" seems to be greater creativity, not pathological collapse.

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  1. Aren’t the population doomster predictions accurate like the global warming, peak oil, and food shortage ones

    1. Preaching that the god’s angry and will destroy the world any day now if not appeased, and by appeased, I mean give the priest his cut of the goods, is probably world’s 7th or 8th oldest profession. The words may have changed, but the idea still sells.

    2. Scarcity of closing punctuation duly noted

    3. Someday one of these dooms will come true, and then you’ll be sorry we didn’t monger harder!

    4. This was predicted some time ago. It has happened:

      “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” – Thomas Jefferson

  2. sociosexual orientation inventory

    Dibs on the album name.

    1. Sounds like a yellen speech

    2. Sounds like a mid-80s Butthole Surfers album.

    3. Sounds like everybody’s first day of college.

  3. I know lots of people that are indeed rats.

  4. Soylent Green was a documentary on what it was like to live in 1970s NYC, or any city in India since the end of WWII.

    1. Full of Indian cab drivers and open defecation?

      1. It’s like you live in my house.

        1. Note to self, never visit Gojira.

  5. It would seem like the changes in the ‘life history’ concept as applied to humans run parallel to the demographic transition. As societies get wealthier, life expectancies increase, families get smaller, etc.

    1. I don’t think density is the primary factor with human behaviour.

      As my remark about future oriented decision making below, it’s about security. If I can be sure I’ll have food and a roof tomorrow, I can look at three months from now and assess that. If I’m less sure of what tomorrow will bring, front-load to stave off near-term problems.

  6. “Would you want to get $100 tomorrow or $150 90 days from now?”

    Was this when I was working on a helpdesk and struggling to avoid overdraft fees, or at my current job where I have the luxury to overpay on loans to reduce the long term interest costs?

    1. Am I in the US or Venezuela?

    1. Wax-Man! [shakes Fist]

  7. Rats make good models for some things, to a first approximation, such as medicine, how livers work, etc. But society? Social interactions depend way too much on the environment for labs to even come close to natural. Humans *choose* cities and apartments, and while they might not choose small apartments if they had the money to do otherwise, it is still a voluntary trade-off, as opposed to rats in crowded lab cages. Sounds to me like a lot of nothing.

    Cities offer something in return for the crowds — more jobs, more outlets for entertainment — people recognize what the deal is. Now if you could set up something similar for rats, like crowded in return for better food, warmer nests, less stress from predators, and let the rats choose crowded indoors or the wide outdoors — maybe that would be a fair first approximation.

    1. I’d wager you’d get residential “suburbs” with rats nexting out in the open spaces and making runs into the high density areas for food and materials.

      1. My expectations also. It would be very hard to make a rat-equivalent to human cities, because rats bring nothing to the deal.

    2. Rats make good models for some things,

      And labs have started using lawyers as test subjects, because the lab techs get less attached to them and there are some things even a rat won’t do.

    3. Now if you could set up something similar for rats, like crowded in return for better food, warmer nests, less stress from predators, and let the rats choose crowded indoors or the wide outdoors — maybe that would be a fair first approximation.

      Do rats not exist on your planet? Stack some cinder blocks next to a grain bin or have pizza delivered to a vacant apartment in the city.

  8. Increasing population density leads to Socialism which is fatal in the long run.

    1. “It’s simple: Overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” – Major Kusanagi

      1. Yeah, that’s not how biology works.

    2. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” – Thomas Jefferson

    3. Then explain Hong Kong and Singapore.

      1. Mercantilism with harsh social controls. We’ll see how long they actually survive in this current form.

        1. Singapore, yes. Hong Kong, no.

          1. Both were still colonies of Britain within my lifetime. Hong Kong still “mostly” functions as a city-state like Singapore under the one-country/two-systems rule by China. Pick whatever language you like to cover its current political and social status.

  9. 1960s science fiction ran with this idea. Make room, make room! Stand on Zanzibar. The sheep look up. The marching morons. (The latter a prediction of the coming Trump voters.)

  10. I call BS on this “study” as everyone knows “mo’ people=mo’ problems”.

    1. Needs mo’ graphs. Where are the graphs?

  11. The real question that needs to be researched is whether people in areas of high population density or lower population density are better equipped to handle the coming zombie apocalypse.

    1. Well, higher population density does speed disease spread, zombies or no.

    2. All else being equal, lots more zombies in dense pop areas. You’re better off going to a rural area and finding a fortified place to hole up in, like a prison.

      Yeah, that’ll work out.

    3. Whomever has more guns, walls and constant/predictable food sources wins. I’m going with low density.

    4. Boyle-type “I have rabies until I die of starvation.” zombies or Romero-type “I run on a mix magic and nuclear energy and get smarter with each iteration.” zombies?

      1. Uh, one of those types is a fantasyland, made-up kind with no basis in science.

  12. The advantages and disadvantages of population density depend on the characteristics of the people you’re crowded together with.

  13. Maybe not rats, but people who choose to live in urban environments are some kind of animal distinct from those of us who prefer the country. More of a social animal, out of necessity when you can’t fart without offending several dozen of the people who are all within sniffing distance of your ass every damn minute of the day. You gotta learn to have consideration for everybody else if you want to get along in an anthill and it’s natural to assume everybody else’s business is your business if their business is taking place in your space. You move out to the country where you have your own space and you start thinking it ain’t nobody’s business what you do since they’re way on down the road a piece and what you’re doing doesn’t affect them.

    The other side of that coin is that if you agree to share your rights and responsibilities with everybody else in the city, you can afford some pretty nice common goods. Museums, theaters, zoos, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters…… Out in the country, you’re on your own, buddy. You want to be left alone? Fine, but you’re getting left alone whether you’re drinking beer on your back porch or slowly starving to death trapped beneath your over-turned tractor. Doesn’t matter how piteously you cry for help, ain’t nobody there to help you.

    1. it’s natural to assume everybody else’s business is your business if their business is taking place in your space

      Maybe I’m just lucky but I have lived in the big city for decades and nobody has ever assumed my business was any of their business. That shit happens in small towns.

      1. Yeah – I think it’s actually just the opposite. Because of the high density of urban areas, people tend to aggressively ignore one another.

        It’s why contrary to the assertion that “you can’t fart without offending several dozen of the people who are all within sniffing distance of your ass,” it’s exactly in big cities that a homeless person can walk around with their pants literally full of shit you can smell from half a block away and no one will even take notice.

        1. Try opening a lawn-mower repair shop in your garage and see how long you get ignored. I wasn’t really referring to people one-on-one getting in your business but more the way people just assume that things like zoning laws and such are naturally things that should be decided by way of the government collectively deciding who gets to do what. Around here, we’ve got these jitney vans that the county keeps making noises about regulating but so far, there’s not much in the way of anything stopping Uber or Lyft operating because if you want to pay somebody ten bucks to give you a ride into town and somebody else is willing to give you a ride into town for ten bucks, why is that anybody else’s business? In the city, it’s more likely to be why isn’t that everybody’s business?

          1. Amen to this ^^

    2. It’s ants, not rats. People like that want to live in an anthill and communicate with short (140 character) messages. Every ant is equal, except the queen who is a more important and hence even more equal.

    3. Dude I don’t know what you consider country, in most places people in the country live in villages. Not sure why you are associating country lifestyle with antisocial behavior. And most libertarians I’ve met are thoroughly city folks.

  14. The only thing I see denser population doing is making people in dense metropolitan areas less self reliant and expect government to do it for them. That is working out great isn’t it

  15. All of these pathologies amounted to a “behavioral sink” in which infant mortality ran as high as 96 percent.

    So, even if these bozos were correct, they would eventually get what they want anyways?

    1. The City vs Country divide has been a feature of human politics for 5,000 years or more. Too bad we haven’t figured it out yet.

      Two Ecologies
      A Thermodynamic Explanation Of Politics

      Jefferson remarked on it:

      “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” – Thomas Jefferson

      1. Look, you’ve said both of those twice before. Three of them in this thread. Did you not notice you were repeating yourself?

  16. As population density increased, female rats became less able to carry pregnancies to full term?and they so neglected the pups that were born that most died.

    … ‘Detroit Mom Forced to Give Birth on Jail Floor After Arrest for Driving on Suspended License’

    Props Reason!

  17. RE: Hey Population Doomsters. People Aren’t Rats: New at Reason
    Population density portends greater creativity, not collapse

    Stalin considered people nothing more than rats.
    Who are we to argue with such a kind and benevolent man such as he?

    1. I read in the NYT all the wonders Stalin did for Ukrainian agriculture. Are you going to argue with their Pulitzer Prize winning coverage?

  18. High population density has been demonstrated to induce unhappiness and aggravation in me…and that was living in the suburbs.

    Moved back to a small town last year after 17 years in suburbs. All is right with the world again.
    Before my first day in the new house was over, three neighbors had brought treats…one treat was delivered by a 4 year old and a 6 year old before I’d even met their parents.

    1. Sounds about right. Much as I can’t stand the politics of the place, every time I arrive at the in-law’s place in the sticks of VT, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of freedom, space, and lack of too many gawdamed people everyplace I look. It may not work for everyone, but give me a population density of 20 or 30 per square mile, and I’m much happier.

  19. 1. The Earth is barely populated at all. If you gave everyone a 700 square foot apartment, we could all move to Texas and leave the rest of the Earth empty.

    2. Crowded cities are not high on my list of places to live. Give me wide open spaces.

  20. I’m a little concerned about my upcoming vacation to Delhi now.

  21. Every time you read any social “science,” keep in mind:

    No studies that meet the criteria for “science” possible due to countless uncontrolled variables in real-world and even most laboratory human studies.

    Poor reproducibility is endemic in social science studies (probably due to the above).

    The field is rife with confirmation bias. Because there are so many uncontrolled variables, the structure of the studies ensures, more often than not, they give exactly the results the researchers want them to give.

    Because no actual science is done, conflating correlation to causation is almost a requirement in most social science. It’s like the gold standard for junk science.

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB97Qe2D4V0

      Guys
      Who wrote lies
      Now present them in disguise
      A cinch in sociology

      Attract
      Quite abstract
      Without one single fact
      Disblended sociology

      Birds
      Who used words
      Now all talk in terms of X and Y and Z
      They can take one small matrix
      And really do great tricks
      All in the name of sociology

    2. “It’s like the gold standard for junk science.”

      Don’t be too hard on it. It can come up with repeatable, illuminating, interesting and unexpected results. At least in socio-linguistics and economics.

  22. They found that people living in countries have fewer sexual partners, get married later, postpone children, have fewer children, invest more in education for both themselves and their kids, and save more for retirement tend to be denser.

    There, FTFY. That is, if there is any causation at all, it likely goes the other way.

  23. We ought to envy Bangladesh.

  24. Very short sighted point of view. All major metro areas require huge amounts of land to provide energy/agriculture needs. Cities, though very cool to hang out in and hey, great museums, don’t feed themselves. What these researchers don’t seem to appreciate is that resources outside of the cities are, in fact finite. If you have a single environmentalist cell in your body, then population control should be its first concern.

    1. “…If you have a single environmentalist cell in your body, then population control should be its first concern.”

      If you had a single brain cell, you’d be embarrassed to have made that comment.

  25. “High Population Density Just Might Be Good for You”

    Higher population density of humans = lower population density of plants and animals, as any real scientist ie environmentalist, will tell you. Don’t give me a home where the buffalo roam.

    1. That’s so stupid I can’t even be motivated to explain it to you.

  26. I read this article to see how badly Bailey botched it. He somehow managed to make this article worse than I expected.

    “They found that people living in countries and states with denser populations are more likely, on average, to… have fewer sexual partners, get married later, postpone children, have fewer children, invest more in education for both themselves and their kids, and save more for retirement.”

    Anyone who is aware of the city/country divide could have told you this conclusion, although a normal person could have provided more insight, since they understand part of what is going on and can thus make basic causal connections.

    “The group that read the article was more likely to say that they were more inclined to wait for the larger reward.”

    The problem with this statement is nicely summarized by a quote from Thomas Sowell, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” You cannot state the results of a non-deterministic procedure without accounting for every parameter, whether that be by assuming the precision is low or using some more complicated method. Either way, I cannot tell if the researchers did this or not because that information was not in this article and the link brought me to the abstract, not the article.

  27. Yesterday, 228,000 people were added to the Earth’s population, the graph of which still looks asymptotic to a vertical line. So Ehrlich et alii were admittedly wrong in their prognoses–computers, Roe v. Wade and The Pill doubtless weighing in. But still that’s 456,000 people in a weekend on a planet that is the same size it was when there were 2 billion of us in 1927. The problem is that these near-vertical graphs play out in mass starvation and steep death rates all of a sudden when we observe deer populations on an island or bacteria on a petri dish. Granted, there are no Julian Simons among preaching more prosperity around the corner, or Ehrlichs, unaware of the second derivative sign change just before he published, making his calculations seem to cry wolf. True, to antichoice fanatics no problem exists that Armageddon or the Rapture won’t fix, but that is small consolation to the unprogrammed.

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