31 Mar 2012

Anonymity and brevity as adaptation

Posted by jofr

In a recent Google+ discussion, Russ Abbott drew my attention to Stanley Milgram’s insights how society works. In large cities people are much less helpful, friendly and polite than in small towns. Why is that so? Stanley Milgram tried to explain it by the concept of “overload”.

Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) was an American social psychologist who was born in New York, went to high school with Philip Zimbardo, made his PhD at Harvard, and became later a full professor of psychology at the City University of New York. In one of his studies he wondered how city dwellers manage to live in such proximity to each other. As this PsyBlog article says, he found that the way we behave in busy urban areas is a natural response to information overload: “In the city our senses are continually assaulted. There are too many sights, sounds and other people for us to process properly. This is both the attraction of the city and its downside”. City dwellers, therefore, try to conserve their “processing power” and “psychic energy”.

Milgram argued that living in large cities has a price. People in large cities have only superficial social interactions with each other, which is encouraged by frowning or looking angry all the time. They keep moving and transact any business as quickly as possible. Social niceties like apologizing for bumping into each other are skipped because city dwellers have less spare processing power available.

Any inhabitant of a larger city like London, L.A. or New York can confirm this unsocial and sometimes rude behavior. There is an unwillingness of city dwellers to be helpful and supportive. Since Milgram was born in New York, Milgram should know what he was talking about. In his classic science paper “The experience of living in cities” from 1970, Milgram says the reason why people show an unsocial behavior which discourages others from initiating contact is to reduce cognitive and social overload:

“The ultimate adaptation to an overloaded social environment is to totally disregard the needs, interests, and demands of those whom one does not define as relevant to the satisfaction of personal needs […] contrasts between city and rural behavior probably reflect the responses of similar people to very different situations, rather than intrinsic differences in the personalities of rural and city dwellers. The city is a situation to which individuals respond adaptively.”

Unsocial behavior is a response to “too much” society and social interactions. This is similar to arrogant behavior, which is often a response to “too much” demands from the intrusive environment. Among city dwellers, anonymity, brevity and unsocial behavior are an adaptation to information overload. Inhabitants avoid speaking with each other and do not know each other. One aspect of urban anonymity is the familiar stranger: an individual who is recognized from regular activities, but with whom one does not interact, for example somebody who is seen daily on the train, but with whom one does not otherwise communicate. On the contrary in small villages there are no strangers. In very small towns and villages there is too little information, and the inhabitants speak with each other all the time, until everyone knows everything about everybody.

It looks like brevity (“keep it short” or “short is good”) is a general strategy to deal with information overload, too. CEOs like to hear short “executive summaries” because they do not want to drown in information. Internet users have a similar problem: there is too much stuff and too much information available. There is no time to consume it all. Seth Godin argued that we will that something is too long more often in the future. There is an increasingly popular internet slang phrase TL;DR which means “too long; didn’t read”. Like the city dwellers who try to conserve their “mental” energy by reducing their actions, interactions and transactions, internet dwellers try to conserve their energy by limiting their consumption of information.

Therefore anonymity, brevity and limited attention span are an adaptation to information overload in general. If we are overwhelmed with information, we try to adapt our behavior by keeping it short, brief and swift to save our limited processing power. We neglect any unnecessary niceties. Thus the next time the CEO appears to be unsocial and rude, he may just try to conserve his limited processing power 😉


* Stanley Milgram, The Experience of Living in Cities, Science 13 March (1970) 1461-1468
* Stanley Milgram, Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger, Psychology Today, 8 (1974) 70-3
* Stanley Milgram, The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity, in The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments, Stanley Milgram and Thomas Blass, 2010 (original 1977), Pinter & Martin Ltd, 

(The picture of the crowd in New York is from Flickr user Gary McCabe)

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2 Responses to “Anonymity and brevity as adaptation”

  1. […] CAS-Group Blog » Blog Archive » Anonymity and brevity as adaptation […]

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