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Cities — But Not Their Citizens — Really Are Meaner


After losing five bikes to thieves in New York City, filmmaker Casey Neistat decided to conduct an experiment. Last month, he locked up his bike and pretended to steal it. He did this in various places around the city, including in front of a police station. Neistat caught all this on camera and watched as dozens of pedestrians kept strolling by as he sawed through his own bike lock. This case is just one reason writer Will Doig thinks cities are meaner. In a recent piece for Salon.com, Doig argues that while urbanites are viewed as selfish and unconcerned, it's not because they lack morals or values.

He finds research that explores why it is that people in cities are less likely to intervene and more likely to give you the cold shoulder. What encounters have you had in a city with either meanness or a moment of kindness? What surprised you? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Will Doig joins us now from our bureau in New York. He writes about cities for Salon.com. Welcome back.

WILL DOIG: Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: So Casey Neistat conducted this experiment with his bike, but there are urban psychologists who actually study this in many different ways. What - how did they go about it?

DOIG: Yes. So city folk basically have this kind of every-man-for-himself reputation of being callous and self-absorbed and indifferent to strangers in need. And this sort of reputation also gets reinforced by, you know, popular culture, Martin Scorsese movies, Rick Santorum saying that city people have a different value structure. And it is true, like you said, that urbanites are less likely than people in rural areas to intervene in scenarios involving strangers who need assistance or property being stolen or vandalized.

But what psychologists have learned is that this doesn't have anything to do with callousness or not caring and more to do with external factors that are more pronounced in urban environments. And the way that they measure that is by doing things like going out with assistance and faking injuries and feigning blindness and dropping pens and things like that and see if anybody...

LUDDEN: Sounds like a fun day in the job.

DOIG: Yeah.


DOIG: See if anybody helps them out. And they have in fact found that people in urban areas are less likely to do so.

LUDDEN: So, oh, external factors you said, what makes the difference?

DOIG: So it's called the bystander effect. This was a theory that was kind of established in 1968 after the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, which is a famous case that was actually a bit sensationalized by the media people.


DOIG: There were dozens of onlookers, but it turned out that actually there probably weren't that many. Nevertheless...

LUDDEN: This is when she was supposed to be screaming and people could hear her but did nothing, right?

DOIG: Correct. And basically, that launched this theory which has been researched for decades now as part of a field called urban psychology, and it applies really well to this bike theft experiment that Casey did. I talked to a psychologist about it, and he basically watched the video and evaluated it and said there were four ways that the bystander effect comes into a - comes into play. First is that people literally don't see him riding the bicycle. There's so much stimuli in urban environments that we miss things like that.

Second is that they do see him, but what's happening is sort of ambiguous. You know, why would somebody be stealing a bike so brazenly in the middle of the day? Third is that they notice him, but they don't quite know what to do. And fourth is that they know they should do something, but they're afraid. The guy is holding a power tool, and you don't really want to approach him. And psychologists have determined apathy is really only a minor factor in comparison to these urban stimuli factors.

LUDDEN: And isn't there an effect where if you see someone else noticing this event or act and they're not doing anything, you're more likely not to do anything?

DOIG: That's right. And that was the most interesting thing about this to me, and that sort of falls into the ambiguity category, which is, yes, it's ambiguous what's happening, but what's also ambiguous is what heightens the ambiguity is the reactions of the other people around you. We take our cues from people who are in our, you know, right around us, basically. This is why comedy clubs hire professional laughers. And in this situation, you don't see anybody else really reacting to him, looking like he's stealing a bike, and so you think, well, everything must be OK. No one else is doing anything. And that sort of feeds upon itself.

And actually, psychologists have done interesting experiments with this where they'll put, for instance, two people in a room, one of whom is the psychologist's secret helper, and then there'll be cries of distress from another room. If the psychologist's secret helper does nothing or says, oh, it's probably nothing, then the subject tends to do nothing as well. But if they say, oh, that sounds like somebody, you know, might be in distress, then the subjects, three out of four times, will go and try to intervene.

LUDDEN: Huh, huh. Let's get a caller on the line. Graham(ph) is in Norman, Oklahoma. Hi there.

GRAHAM: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I went to New York City about a decade ago. I was 19, and I have this perception that New Yorkers were kind of callous. We had parked our car on the street, not understanding where we could and couldn't park, and we got a boot on it. And the gentleman from the city was waiting for the tow truck to come. We were pleading with him to please take the boot off. We were young. We don't have money. And I'll never forget this group of New Yorkers. They kind of, you know, surrounded us and basically we were like yelling at this guy to take the boot off our car and (unintelligible) these poor Oklahoma boys alone, and they made sure we knew where to go to get it out of impound. And it was really - it was like a really nice experience, and I actually - I really, really remember it very vividly, and then that being kind of a nice thing because at least we know our car was going to be safe while we were in the city, being in the impound.

LUDDEN: You didn't get the boot off then?

GRAHAM: No. We certainly didn't - and it ended up costing us quite a bit, but like I said, I'll never forget those first New Yorkers who came to our defense.

LUDDEN: Thanks so much for the call, Graham.

GRAHAM: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: Will Doig?

DOIG: You know what's interesting about that, is that we actually got a lot of defensive responses to this story from people saying, I live in the city and, you know, I experience acts of helpfulness all the time. And I live in the city as well, and I think that that's definitely true. A few things about that. First of all, I think it's often easier to see and remember acts of helping than non-acts of helping. You know, your caller might not even remember this incident except for the fact that everybody was trying to defend him because it's active. So, you know, if we leave work and we find that our bike has been stolen, we don't necessarily think about the people who might have seen it being stolen and didn't do anything. But if we find out that somebody tried to steal our bike and a stranger stopped him, that's memorable.

And again, just to reiterate, this is not about sort of kindness versus cruelty of city people. I think that city people can be quite kind, but you know, it's just that - in fact, it's actually just the opposite of that. Research shows that it has more to do with environmental factors.

LUDDEN: Well, it's curious that our caller from Norman, Oklahoma there said it was a group of people who stood up to the policeman. Maybe they had strength in numbers. And if it would have just been one person passing along, they might not have done that.

DOIG: That is definitely true. I think a lot of this comes from the sort of legacy of the time when a lot of cities were much more dangerous, and you just didn't get involved in things because you could be put in harm's way if you did. And I think that's also a really good example of how learned behavior can trump the bystander effect. So for instance, you hear a lot of people talk about New York City right after 9/11 and everybody was so helpful to each other and really, if they saw somebody who needed help, they did something, even if it was a stranger. And I bet you that a lot of people in that crowd surrounding his car had gotten boots put on their car, gotten their own parking tickets and things like that, and they could relate. And so that really made a difference.

All right. Andrew is on the line from Columbus, Ohio. Go right ahead.

ANDREW: Well, this is my experience from about two years ago. I was in Philadelphia with my 6-year-old cousin, and we were just touring around Chinatown and it was just a really hectic, crazy afternoon and like it was literally like a highway of pedestrians going back and forth, like parallel, and somebody who was very, very callous and rude bumped into my 6-year-old cousin. She fell down and started crying like crazy and nobody would pick her up. Everybody started avoiding her. And I'm Asian and when I was a kid, I was always loved helping people. And so once in a while my parents would say, don't help him because they might think you did it or like I might get blamed for something. I was wondering if there would be like a cultural aspect or a factor that is involved in unkindness and that also correlates with urban areas.

LUDDEN: Will Doig?

DOIG: Absolutely. So one of the things that I did when I wrote this story was I actually walked around Manhattan a little bit with a blind New Yorker to sort of see - basically, we just walked around for a bit, and then we stopped and I kind of, you know, hang back, and we stopped to see if people would help him cross the street. And what people did was they would tell him when the light would change and it was time for him to cross, but they didn't actually take his arm and help him across the street like you might find in a rural area or even other cities. And I think that that is a real example of where culture comes into this, because in a place like New York, which is basically home of the speed walker, you know, people - maybe people don't feel comfortable taking a stranger by the arm, or they think that the blind person wouldn't feel comfortable with them taking their arm. And I think that that really does play into this a lot as well.

Another thing about cultural differences is that one psychologist has actually studied this effect in multiple cities all around the world. It was a huge study, and he found that in certain cities this does - people are more willing to intervene, but it's, again, not because they are, you know, have better ethics as individuals necessarily. It's because it fits in with cultural norms in those cities.

LUDDEN: All right. Andrew, thanks for the call.

ANDREW: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Let's take a call now from Sachia(ph) in Baltimore County, Maryland. Hi there.

SACHIA: Hi. How are you?


SACHIA: And I have a funny story. I visited a friend from New York and she lives there, and I first started - because I was sitting on the stoop and she wasn't home, I was reading a book, and her neighbor comes - came home. I said hello to him, and he said, excuse me?


SACHIA: And he said it with such - that no one had ever said hello to him (unintelligible) I chuckled and I said hello. He said, hello, and then went into his house quickly.


SACHIA: And so later, I went to – actually, he live in Brooklyn. I went to the Brooklyn Museum. Every time I went to the train station, when I went to the museum - every time I walk (unintelligible) and say hello, they'd say, excuse me? And so when she came home, I told her how funny it was, that she had never experienced it. We went out. We went to a pizza place in Brooklyn. The waitress came to the table. I said, hello. How are you? She said, excuse me?


SACHIA: Like no one had expected to be spoken to, and it wasn't offensive. It was really, really funny because they all had this curious - curiousness to them when I said hello, like literally. And all I was saying was hello.

LUDDEN: Well, maybe you changed their lives. Maybe they went on to think about it and say hello after that.


SACHIA: Because I explained to the waitress why it was so funny to me, and like, she couldn't say why it was so funny and we had to tell her, and she was like, oh, no. I heard you. I'm sorry. I mean, I know how to say hello. Like no, it's New Yorkers, and it was so funny.

LUDDEN: All right. Sachia, thank you so much for the call.

SACHIA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Rachel is on the line from Boston, Massachusetts. Hi, Rachel.


LUDDEN: What's your story?

RACHEL: Are you there?

LUDDEN: Yes. What's your story?

RACHEL: My story is that, about six years ago I was in the north end of Boston. Restaurants are often very small, and I choked. I was choking, the maitre d' came over to asked if I was OK. I clearly wasn't, asked for 911. There were four people, excluding my friend, who were sitting about - at arm's length from me, maybe a little bit further, and they ignored it. My friend gave me the Heimlich maneuver, the bread came up, I collapsed. I was conscious, but I collapsed, and everybody kept eating.

LUDDEN: Oh my.

RACHEL: Nobody looked at me. Nobody said, are you OK? What happened? Do you need water? They kept eating.

LUDDEN: Wow. You - obviously you were OK, thankfully.


LUDDEN: All right.

RACHEL: But it's pretty amazing that people just kept eating like nothing was happening right next to them.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Rachel, thank you so much.

RACHEL: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Will Doig?

DOIG: You know, that sounds like a more extreme example than usual, but it is true that part of the reason that people don't intervene a lot of the time - and this speaks to ambiguity of the situation as well, I think, is that they're afraid of looking foolish. You know, if you don't see anybody else doing something, for instance, nobody else at that table was doing anything...

LUDDEN: Although her friend, I thought she said, was giving the Heimlich.

DOIG: Well, until - right, but the other people - I guess one person reacted. But if most people are not doing anything, then there is this sense that you don't want to be like the one person who does, and it sounds like her friend might have some sort of quality where they are, you know, less, I guess, subject to worrying about looking foolish or something like that.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, let's get another very brief call in. Nancy is in Framingham, Massachusetts with another story about Boston. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY: Yes, about Boston. (Unintelligible) happy – it started off bad. I was hit on the passenger side of my car, lost on a street that I was unfamiliar with. But, gee, a good Samaritan, a young man in a pick-up truck stopped, saw the damage to my car, to the passenger side, to the door, the passenger door, and was (unintelligible) in his pick-up, managed to patch up the bad side of the car so that I was able to get in my car and brought my self home to Framingham, 21 miles west of Boston.

LUDDEN: Oh, so it made you feel better about a bad situation there.

NANCY: And I've never forgotten that incident and that young man.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Nancy. Will Doig, I was fascinated that the researchers actually find that acts of meanness and kindness, or attitudes, vary from city to city.

DOIG: Yeah. They can vary dramatically. In fact, just to give you an example, in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries and cities, people are much more likely to intervene with strangers. And they looked into this and they found - or they theorized that the reason was because there's a word simpatico, which doesn't have an equivalent in English, that basically means helpful, agreeable, easy to get along with. And one of the best ways to show that you have this desirable trait is to help other people in full view of other people.

LUDDEN: Huh. And is there some correlation here as to what makes the difference - density, I think, also came up in one study?

DOIG: Yeah. Well, density I think just speaks to in general - the bystander effect is more pronounced the denser a place is, which why you might find in a place like New York it's the most pronounced, because it basically amplifies all four of the things that can make the bystander effect more pronounced.

LUDDEN: OK. And the economy can actually factor into this.

DOIG: Yeah. One interesting thing that the researchers who I looked into found was, in countries that are less economically productive, there tends to be less of a bystander effect, and they kind of found a sort of - or they theorized that there was a sort of reverse cause and effect to this, which was that social - in places where social obligations take priority over individual achievement, then those countries become less economically productive. So it's almost like you're seeing the - it's kind of a reverse of the chicken and the egg. But in a place like, again, say, New York or somewhere else where individual achievement is highly valued, then people, you know, the cultural norm is to sort of get where you're going and not spend too much time interacting with other people.

LUDDEN: That's a bit of a sad commentary there, but I think we have to leave it there.


LUDDEN: Will Doig writes about cities for Salon.com. He joined us from our bureau in New York, and you can find a link to his piece "It's True: Cities are Meaner" at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Will Doig, thanks so much.

DOIG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.