The world is becoming increasingly urbanised. Over half of Earth’s population now lives in cities. In New Zealand, where the proportion of the population that lives in cities is over 85 per cent, there has been debate and consternation over the future of rural and regional communities as young people get attracted to the big cities and the fast-paced lifestyle. But, according to a new study from researchers at the Arizona State University, that cliché about life in the urban fastlane might be not as accurate as we once thought.

The study is entitled “The crowded life is a slow life: Population density and life history strategy” and was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It used data from around the world and across the 50 US states to show that population density (ie living in cities) correlates with what they term a “slow life strategy”. This strategy is when a person focuses more on planning for the long-term future. It includes preferring long-term romantic relationships, having fewer children and investing more in education. The authors of the study then backed up this found correlation by a “series of experiments” in which:

“…people read about increasing crowdedness or heard sounds of a crowded environment … [the researchers] found that perceptions of crowdedness cause people to delay gratification and prefer slower, more long-term, mating and parenting behaviours.”

According to the authors, there study shows that people in dense places “plan for the future more”. They also adopt an approach to life that “values quality over quantity”. (Except in the number of neighbours of course…) The reason for this slow life strategy is apparently evolution. ASU Foundation Professor Steven Neuberg explains:

“In environments where population density is low, and there is thus relatively little competition for available resources, there are few costs but lots of advantages to adopting a ‘fast’ strategy … On the other hand, when the environment gets crowded, individuals have to compete vigorously with others for the available resources and territory …To be successful in this competition, they need to invest more in building up their own abilities, which tends to delay having children … Because this greater social competition also affects their kids, they tend to focus more of their time and energy on enhancing their abilities and competitiveness. So a slow strategy — in which one focuses more on the future and invests in quality over quantity — tends to enhance the reproductive success of individuals in high density environments.”

As we reported a few years ago, there has been a flight from American cities to the suburbs in the past 50 years or so. The reason was that there was more affordable housing, decent schools, safe streets and better parks away from the more densely crowded city centre. That (common sense) finding suggests that people in cities have fewer children, later in life, than others not because of their surroundings. But because people in cities are self-selected. Those that choose to have children, earlier tend to move out of the centre of town (which again makes perfect sense). The fact is that accommodation is expense in cities, thus those that live there cannot afford to have more children. Again, I wouldn’t look to some sort of unverifiable evolutionary theory to explain that – it just seems to be common sense. (As for the experiments in which people preferred slower, more long-term, mating and parenting behaviours after hearing sounds of crowds – what on Earth does that mean?? How do they measure that? Obviously Bill and Melinda Gates are missing the boat – the best contraceptive they can distribute to the developing world is pictures of Times Square on New Year’s Eve accompanied by sounds of a city street. That will stop people seeking instant gratification and short term mating!)

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...