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Studies have shown that people in large cities are less likely to help people out than people in small towns. In this lesson, we’ll learn why this is by looking at the theories of urban overload, pluralistic ignorance, and diffusion of responsibility.

Are Cities More Dangerous?

Think about a place that you associate with crime and antisocial behavior. Is it an urban area? Rural? Media often portray large cities as dark, dangerous places and small towns as safe and homey. But, is this really true?Though studies conflict on whether large cities or small towns have more antisocial behavior, there is evidence that urban areas have less prosocial behavior than rural areas.

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That is, people in small towns seem to be willing to help others out more than people in large cities.Is this because people in small towns are just better people? Are they raised with stronger values? If either of those explanations were true, then people raised in small towns should be more willing to help people out regardless of whether they are in small towns or large cities.But, that’s not usually the case; most people who are raised in small towns and move to a large city do not help others out any more than people raised in large cities.So, why are you more likely to get a helping hand in Paris, Texas, than in New York City? Social psychologists have three main theories as to why people in urban areas engage in prosocial behavior less than their counterparts in rural areas. These theories are: urban overload, pluralistic ignorance, and diffusion of responsibility.

Urban Overload

The overstimulation of the senses leads to urban overload.
Urban Overload

Urban overload says that people in large cities tend to keep to themselves more to lessen stimuli.

Think about this: urban areas are full of sights, sounds, and people. If you stand on a corner in Times Square, you won’t be there alone; there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people within sight at any time of day or night.Besides all the people rushing by, there are a ton of other things to take your attention: bright lights, large signs, cars honking, sirens going, the smell of pretzels and roasted nuts from street vendors – all of these things, and dozens of others, assail your senses. That’s a lot to take in all at once!Now imagine having to deal with all of that every time you leave your home.

Just walking down the street becomes a journey filled with stimuli. People who live in large cities like New York experience sensory overload: when one or more senses is overstimulated and you have a hard time registering it all.As a result of continually being exposed to stimuli, people in large cities automatically try to take it down a notch by keeping to themselves.

Every time you come in contact with someone, that’s extra stimuli. So, people try to lessen their sensory overload by avoiding involvement with others. As a result, they are less likely to jump in and offer to help others out.

Pluralistic Ignorance

Dissenters in Nazi Germany experienced pluralistic ignorance.
Pluralistic Ignorance Nazis

Remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes? A pair of swindlers tells the emperor that they’ll make him a new pair of clothes that are magic; fools can’t see the clothes, and therefore the emperor will be able to tell immediately which of his subjects are fools.

Of course, the con men don’t actually make any clothes, but everyone (including the emperor) talks about how beautiful the clothing is because they think that they are the only ones who can’t see it and are afraid to speak out.That’s kind of what pluralistic ignorance is. Pluralistic ignorance occurs when people think that everyone else believes in a set of norms or social rules that they do not believe in, and because they think they are the only one to disagree, they don’t speak out.What does this have to do with prosocial behavior? Think about people in Germany during World War II. Many of them disagreed with the Nazi party, but they thought that everyone else agreed, so the dissenters were afraid to speak out.Pluralistic ignorance is more likely to happen when in a large group and thus is more likely to occur in cities versus small towns.

Diffusion of Responsibility

Expecting others to answer pleas for help is an example of diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of Responsibility

You might have heard of the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Genovese was stabbed numerous times outside of her apartment building. People inside heard Genovese crying out for help, but did not call the police. Why? One reason is that they believed someone else would call.

When people are in a large group, they are more likely to avoid taking responsibility because they think that someone else there will take responsibility. This is known as diffusion of responsibility.Because people in urban areas are often surrounded by many other people, they are more likely to fall victim to diffusion of responsibility.

Lesson Summary

Studies have shown that people in large cities are less likely to help others out. One reason for this might be urban overload, or the tendency of people in urban areas to keep to themselves to avoid extra stimulation.

Another reason might be pluralistic ignorance, which happens when people go along with the group even though they disagree, because they think that everyone else agrees. Finally, due to the large number of people around in large cities, people are less likely to take responsibility for helping someone out, which is known as diffusion of responsibility.

Learning Outcomes

Following this video lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe three social psychology theories that help explain prosocial behavior: urban overload, pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility
  • Explain why people in urban areas are more likely to experience each of these tendencies, thus leading to less prosocial behavior, than people in rural areas

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