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Living in a City Can Change How You View the Future

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Living in a city affects more than just your commute and your ability to find falafel at 3 a.m. It also has a significant impact on your mindset, according to a new study highlighted by BPS Research Digest.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers led by Oliver Sng of the University of Michigan found that density can make people more patient in the grand scheme of things—adopting what’s called a “slow life history” strategy that focuses on the future rather than the present moment.

The idea of life history strategies is that when animals (including humans) can expect to live longer, they tend to become sexually mature later, have fewer offspring, and invest more in those offspring. By contrast, shorter life expectancies lead to earlier sexual maturation, younger ages of first reproduction (as in, people having children earlier in life), and greater numbers of offspring overall. The former is indicative of a slow life history strategy, while the latter is a fast life history strategy. Essentially, if you don’t expect to live that long, you’re likely to want to hit those life milestones like having kids a lot earlier than someone who, say, thinks they’ll live to be age 90.

The present study approached the question of how area density might affect life history strategies through existing data and several experiments in the lab. They compared the density of both countries and U.S. states with data on some of the variables associated with life history strategies, like birth rates, sexual behavior, the age at which people have their first children, how much people invest in their education and that of their children, and other indicators of a future-oriented mindset. They found that residents of both denser countries and denser states married later, had fewer children, had lower teenage birth rates, and had higher rates of preschool enrollment and retirement investment (indicators of parental investment and a future-oriented mindset, respectively).

In the experimental part of the study, the researchers brought people into the lab and prompted them to think about population density in a few ways: Some read articles about how the U.S. is becoming denser and cities more crowded with people while others listened to audio recordings of crowds of people chattering. Then, they answered survey questions about topics like their desire to have children, whether they would spend money and time on education now to get a higher paying job later, or whether they would wait multiple days to receive a larger reward or take a smaller reward in the immediate future.

The researchers found that across all six experiments, people exhibited signs of slower life history strategies when confronted with higher population density. They hypothesize that this might be the case because in a dense city, people have to compete more for resources, and investing in education and spending more time raising fewer kids can lead to being a more competitive member of society.

The study, however, only looked at population data at the national and state levels, and the density of towns and cities can vary a fair amount within states. Los Angeles is very dense, but parts of California are quite rural. The same goes for New York City versus much of the rest of the state. Subsequent research could go a long way in refining how density affects psychology, if it took a finer-grained approach to the topic.

However, we do know that living in urban areas can affect our minds and bodies in other ways, too. Greater green spaces are associated with less aggression, while living in a dense urban place influences how the brain processes stress. Since much of the research on urban psychology has found that living in a city is associated with greater risk of mental illness, though, this is an unusual bright spot in psychological literature for city lovers.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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environment
Germany Wants to Fight Air Pollution With Free Public Transit
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images

Getting people out of their cars is an essential part of combating climate change. By one estimate, getting people to ditch their two-car household for just one car and a public transit commute could save up to 30 percent in carbon dioxide emissions [PDF]. But how do you convince commuters to take the train or the bus? In Germany, the answer may be making all public transit free, according to The Local.

According to a letter from three of Germany's government ministers to the European Union Environment Commissioner, in 2018, Germany will test free public transit in five western German cities, including Bonn. Germany has failed to meet EU air pollution limits for several years, and has been warned that it could face heavy fines if the country doesn't clean up its air. In a report from 2017, the European Environment Agency estimated that 80,767 premature deaths in Germany in 2014 were due to air pollution.

City officials in the regions where free transport will be tested say there may be some difficulty getting ahold of enough electric buses to support the increase in ridership, though, and their systems will likely need more trains and bus lines to make the plan work.

Germany isn't the first to test out free public transportation, though it may be the first to do it on a nation-wide level. The Estonian capital of Tallinn tried in 2013, with less-than-stellar results. Ridership didn't surge as high as expected—one study found that the elimination of fares only resulted in a 1.2 percent increase in demand for service. And that doesn't necessarily mean that those new riders were jumping out of their cars, since those who would otherwise bike or walk might take the opportunity to hop on the bus more often if they don't have to load a transit card.

Transportation isn't prohibitively expensive in Germany, and Germans already ride public transit at much higher rates than people do in the U.S. In Berlin, it costs about $4 a ride—more expensive than a ride in Paris or Madrid but about what you'd pay in Geneva, and cheaper than the lowest fare in London. And there are already discounts for kids, students, and the elderly. While that doesn't necessarily mean making public transit free isn't worth it, it does mean that eliminating fares might not make the huge dent in car emissions that the government hopes it will.

What could bring in more riders? Improving existing service. According to research on transportation ridership, doing things like improving waits and transfer times bring in far more new riders than reducing fares. As one study puts it, "This seldom happens, however, since transport managers often cannot resist the idea of reducing passenger fares even though the practice is known to have less impact on ridership."

The same study notes that increasing the prices of other modes of transit (say, making road tolls and parking fees higher to make driving the more expensive choice) is a more effective way of forcing people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. But that tends to be more unpopular than just giving people free bus passes.

[h/t The Local]

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