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Psycasm

Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I was first exposed to this paper via Radiolab with their episode on 'Cities'. I wasn't quite sure how accurately Radiolab was portraying the finding (this was the very first episode I had listened to), but it certainly captured my attention.

A few months later the same paper was brought up again (in class, I think), and re-ignited my interest.

More recently still, a film-student friend of mine was searching for a documentary topic, and this paper jumped to the fore of conversation.

When I finally sat down to find the primary source I was surprised to find that one of the authors, Ara Norenzayan, was someone who's research I had profiled in a previous blog post.

The paper looks at the idea of profiling cities. Not in a GDP kind of way, not in a population density kind of way, not even on size or any other measures you're probably used to. It's a strange kind of behaviour-level analysis. It measures the Pace of Life* that each of its inhabitants are subject to. If those that live in a city can be thought of as its life-blood, how fast does that blood pump? If we're something closer to ants in a colony, how hard do each of us work? It's clear that cities don't just decay, they expand, they generate wealth and jobs, they consume resources and output waste and other things. Those that live in cities are not random agents acting independently, bouncing off each with a certain chaos. Cities vary, and it seems intuitive that each city has a particular kind of personality.

Here in Australia, Brisbane is considered a bit of a sleepy little town while Melbourne is a teeming pop-culture metropolis (despite Brisbane having Australia's largest Gallery of Modern Art; while Melbourne has only petty vandals). Sydney, in contrast, has a reputation as a busy, business focused city.

(An example of street art endemic to Melbourne; Source: http://www.melbournestreetart.com/)

Cities all essentially serve the same purpose, and there must be a thousand things that each city has in common. In any city in the world you can probably hail a taxi, send a letter, buy a Big Mac, pawn a watch, get a haircut, or feed pestilent birds in a public space.

So what is it that makes one city different from another? How can it be quantified, and what implications might it have? Levine and Norenzayan (1999) proposed to address these questions in (comparably) large cities in 31 different countries:

"... The study had three main goals: first, to investigate differences in the pace of life across large cities in a wide range of countries; second, to examine which community characteristics best predict these differences; and third, to explore the consequences of the pace of life for the well-being of individuals and their communities."

 So what is Pace of Life, and why is it interesting?

"...the present study drew on Hoch’s (1976) theory concerning the relationship between economic factors and the pace of life. Hoch argues that the population density of large cities drives up the prices of land and other goods. These economic demands require that people use their time more efficiently so that greater economic value is assigned to people’s time, which, in turn, leads to a faster pace of life. Conversely, of course, a faster pace of life will in itself tend to produce more vital economies."

 Time = Money, apparently. The more you have to do to be successful, to survive, the more demand there is on your time. Conversely, the harder and faster you work, the more successful you (and the city) are.

So what were the factors Levine and Norenzayan (1999) sought to measure regarding pace of life, and what did they hope to predict? Three simple, elegant, behavioural factors were choosen:

1. Walking Speed: The time taken to walk 60ft (18.28m) - measured at 2 distinct down-town locations, during business hours, on clear, sunny days. Participants were unaware that they were being observed.

2. Postal Speed: The time taken for a postal clerk to respond to a standard request for a stamp (on a written note in the native language) and to provide the product and change from a small bill (min. 8 clerks tested per city).

3. Clock Accuracy: Simply put, the accuracy of 15 clocks found in banks within the CBD. [For a brief idea of why this might matter see here (wiki); and here (another Radiolab)]

The reason, I think, that this paper so captured me, is it seems so open to our intuitive navel-gazing. If something as seemingly trivial as walking speed, or postal speed, can predict meaningful factors that relate to the 'personality' of a city, why can't other things? To this point, I will return later...

So the three scores were combined into a 'pace of life index score'**, then converted into z-scores (a value that compares means as expressed as standard deviations from the overall mean). A z value of z = 0 indicates that the actual value of that score is equal to the overall mean. Within the sample provided by Levin and Norenzayan (1999) South Korea and Hungary were closest to the average (at -.02 and .01 respectively). The top 5 fastest cities were in Switzerland (-3.43), Ireland (-3.02), Germany (-3.00), Japan (-2.68) and Italy (2.13). The slowest 5 cities were in Mexico (4.23) (slow!), Indonesia (4.14), Brazil (3.98), El Salvador (3.63) and Syria (3.26).

For context, the overall 'fastest' city, in Switzerland, had a walking speed of 11.80 seconds / 60ft. This represented the third fastest walking speed on that measure alone. Ireland, however, was the city with the fastest walkers outright, at 11.13 seconds. In Mexico, with the overall slowest pace of life, people trotted along at 13.56 seconds / 60ft - not that bad, right? However they really lost out when it came to the postal service. On average, in Mexico, it took 70 seconds to buy a stamp and receive change. The same task, in Switzerland, averaged 16.91 seconds!

America sat squarely in the middle with a pace-of-life score of -0.30; this comprises of 12.03 sec/60ft (6th fastest walkers) and 36.99 seconds in the post office (23rd fastest transaction of 31). England's pace-of-life was 6th overall, at -2.09, with the 4th fastest walkers (taking just 12 seconds to cover the distance), and the 9th fastest postal transaction (clocked at 20.78 seconds). Australia, I'm sad to say, was not measured.

But here's the meat. The pace-of-life index predicted Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) at r = .74 and .72 respectively.

Furthermore:

"Looking at the pace measures individually, it may be seen that the strongest predictors of walking speed were GDP (r = .61), individualism/collectivism (r = –.60), and PPP (r = .59); the strongest predictors for post office speed were GDP (r = .55) and PPP (r = .53); and the strongest predictors of clock accuracy were climate (r = –.53), GDP (r = .48), and PPP (r = .48). In summary, places with a faster pace of life were significantly more likely to have colder climates, have healthier economies, and to emphasize individualism."

Shockingly, this pace-value is correlated with other things... like Coronary Heart Disease (r = .35), percentage of the population who smoke (r = .52) and Subjective Well-Being (r = .54) (Levine & Norenzayan, 1999).

Furthermore, a paper published by Kirkcaldy, Furnham and Levine (2001) predicted:

"...that national attitudinal and economic data - measures of achievement, motivation, competitiveness, work ethic and money attitude - would be related to pace of life"

They specifically applied these data to the data by Levine and Norenzayan (1999) cited above. The 7 constructs measured applied to: Work Ethic, Achievement Motivation, Mastery ('the need for mastery over events and problems'), Competitiveness ('the desire to outperform others'), Achievement through Conformity ('identification with an organization and its goals'), Money Beliefs ('the importance of money to the individual') and Attitudes to Saving.

As 'predicted' by Hoch's economic model, they found surprisingly strong (moderate) correlations.

[WS = Walking Speed; PS = Postal Service; CA = Clock Accuracy]

However, in a move of statistical responsibility, they applied the 'pace of life' formula and categorized cities as having a High, Medium, or Low pace of life.

Now here's the tricky bit - the paradox. Work Ethic, Achievement and Competitiveness were lowest for the fastest nations. Slow nations had stronger money belief (e.g 'money can solve all my problems') and stronger attitudes towards saving.

Kirkcaldy, Furnham and Levine (2001) claim that this fits with economic reasoning.

Nations with low GDP but high growth are likely to have higher levels of competitiveness and higher on achievement orientation. It's argued that developed countries require a sustained level of co-operation. It seems there is a difference between trait competitiveness and situation competitiveness (as explored in Prisoner's Dilemma scenarios). That is, at a certain point it becomes more valuable to cooperate than to compete. It is argued that a developed, vibrant and efficient city thrives on cooperation rather than competition.

Why focus on these two, specifically? These two values (Achievement and Competitiveness) accounted for over 50% of a variance in a hierarchical regression.

So a bit weird, huh? The absolute opposite that I would have predicted. Though, as a student of psychology, I really feel they should have measured something about time perception. Predictions about walking speed being related to achievement orientation would necessarily be mediated by a gazillions factors. I might only be working in Starbucks, 'cause I lack the motivation to become an investment banker, but I might equally feel that my time is being squeezed from my life all the demands that surround me.

But remember Hoch's theory?

"...These economic demands require that people use their time more efficiently so that greater economic value is assigned to people’s time, which, in turn, leads to a faster pace of life..."

There's nothing there about feeling the need to achieve, only the need to using one's time wisely. So, to my mind, Why wasn't this measured?

And remember Levine and Norenzayan (1999) claimed a correlation between pace and Subjective Well-Being at r = .54? Well, Kirkcaldy et al (2001) claim that fast cities (the developed kind), at least the inhabitants thereof, tend to focus on 'quality of life', which tends to move an individual's priorities away from achievement and competition, and towards family and enjoyment measures. Too bad we lack the data on this to substantiate it. 

It certainly would be interesting to interpret, and perhaps recreate, the study with theories more related to behaviour (given that that is how they chose to measure the phenomenon). Furthermore, I would love some data on people who move between cities, particularly if the cities are both 'fast' but differ greatly on something like Walking Speed. The meat, obviously, is between drastic shifts between slow and fast cities, and how they may influence the individual. Causation clearly is a tricky beast - do people move so the city is congruent with their attitudes, or does a city shape attitudes (or is there some middle ground)?

The ideas are certainly provocative, and I would definitely like a more rigorous behavioural investigation into the people-level stuff (like time perception). But I think it's fun to consider what else might predict elements of a cities personality?

How long is the average wait at a traffic light?

How hot is the average cup of coffee?

What's the mean amount of time taken to smoke a cigarette on a smoke-break?

Any more ideas? And how much scepticism of these findings is warranted. It seems to me that these correlations are not chance occurrences, and do seem to systematically relate to the nature of the city; but are there better ways of explaining these things?

 

---

 

References:

Wirtz, P. & Ries, G. (1992) The Pace of Life - Reanalysed: Why Does Walking Speed of Pedestrians Correlate with City Size? Behaviour, 123, 77 - 83.

Levine, R., & Norenzayan, A. (1999). The Pace of Life in 31 Countries Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 30 (2), 178-205 DOI: 10.1177/0022022199030002003

Kirkcaldy, B., Furnham, A., & Levine, R. (2001). Attitudinal and personality correlates of a nation’s pace of life Journal of Managerial Psychology, 16 (1), 20-34 DOI: 10.1108/02683940110366551

Cover Image: http://www.brisbaneseo.com/

 

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Blog Comments
Matej Jasso

Guest Comment

Hallo

very interesting article, I am preparing a book dedicated to Urban semiotics. Part of the book is focused on the concept of the City as a personality, although surveyed in different metodological way compared to those described in article. However,I would like to quote some sentences and give some reference.

May I ask you, who is the author and whats the preffered way to make a refference to this article?

Matej Jasso

Bratislava

Slovakia

 

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