How population density makes us think of the future

One of the features of both the Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump is the stark divide between urban and rural citizens.

A recent paper provides an interesting perspective on this divide.  It looks at how people regard the future depending on the population density of the place they live in.

The study finds that the density of our surroundings has a profound impact on all manner of things, from our parenting style to our economic decisions.  In short, the number of people that live close to us has a profound impact on the way we invest in our future.

Life history theory

Central to the study was so called ‘life history theory’.  This has been observed across species, and broadly suggests that species with longer lifespans that live in greater numbers tend to have fewer children, who then take longer to develop, with the inverse the case for those who live in lower densities.

The researchers wanted to examine whether this applies equally to human communities.  They started by mapping the population densities of countries around the world alongside a number of different parenting and relationship related outcomes.

As predicted, those living in densely populated countries tended to invest much more in the future.  They would have fewer children, often later in life, and invest more in longer-term relationships.  They would also put a greater emphasis on education.  Indeed, this also applied within countries between areas of varying population densities.

To delve deeper into the data, the researchers conducted a number of experiments.  For instance, they asked a number of participants to read a news story about changes in population density, before then quizzing them on financial planning.  Interestingly, those primed by the rise in population density story were more inclined to favor long-term financial planning.  Even listening to sounds of a large human crowd were found to produce a similar result.

Equally interesting was the apparent finding that this effect was largely confined to a certain stage in our life.  When people were in the typical family raising stage of life, they were much more influenced by the density of their environment than those either side of that age group.

Suffice to say, the results are interesting rather than conclusive, and more work is required to prize more conclusive evidence out.  For instance, the authors themselves admit that there are many mechanisms playing a part, and the exact impact of population density is hard to isolate.  It’s also uncertain at this stage just how population density might influence our thinking.

“Much remains to be examined,” they concluded. “We hope this initial foray will generate renewed interest in a topic that has been all but forgotten, and encourage the field of research on density to become a little more crowded.”


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