The current world population is over 7 billion. Nearly 320 million of those people live in the United States, with 8.4 million in New York City, 3.8 million in Los Angeles, and 2.7 million in Chicago. All that to say, particularly if you live in a big city, things are probably pretty crowded. And that’s nothing compared to India, China, Japan, and other parts of the world. So the question is, what do these crowded conditions do to our mental state? Can it drive you crazy?
The Rat Experiment
In 1960, a scientist named John Calhoun studied crowded conditions using rats. He placed them in a small space and let them reproduce naturally. As more and more rats filled the small living quarters, the result was what Calhoun called a behavioral sink: a complete collapse of social behavior as a result of overcrowding.
Some rats resorted to cannibalism and other horrendous acts. Others withdrew entirely and refused to interact. Mothers were found to neglect their children, and many had trouble having children at all. It was a chaotic nightmare.
Fast vs. Slow Life Histories
John Calhoun isn’t the only scientist to have researched the effects of overcrowding in animals, though. There are also those who study what’s called life history. They’ve also found links between population density and social behavior, but it doesn’t involve insanity.
The theory is that, in less densely populated areas, organisms have “fast” life histories. They start having children as soon as possible, and have more of them in general, but spend less time and effort raising and nurturing each one. Since the area has more resources available, it’s easier for the children to fend for themselves. Quantity of life is emphasized over quality.
On the other hand, in more densely populated regions, organisms tend to have “slow” life histories. They wait longer to have children and have fewer, but spend more energy on building them up, nurturing their abilities, etc. In a higher density population, there’s more competition for resources, so children will need more attention and care, to provide them with what it takes to survive and thrive. In this case, quality of life is emphasized over quantity.
Human Life Histories
The theory of fast and slow life histories and quality vs. quantity is generally applied to animals. But do humans follow this model as well? A group of scientists and researchers recently sought to find this out.
By examining people and families in areas across the country, both densely and sparsely populated, they determined that there is somewhat of a correlation between crowding and life history. People in big cities tend to marry later and have fewer children than those who live out in the country, as well as investing more time and resources into their children’s education.
They also found that crowded conditions can be largely a state of mind. People who are worried about overcrowding or feel like the area they’re living in is becoming denser, exhibit preferences for traits corresponding with a slower life history, regardless of actual population density.
What the researchers didn’t find in their study was the insanity from the rat experiments. Sure, some people may feel like they’re going crazy in a small space, but there’s nothing to indicate that it would cause chaos or destruction on the levels found by Calhoun.
In the end, crowded conditions seem to make people more concerned with planning for their future and fashioning a better life, both for themselves and their children. It can make you feel a little claustrophobic sometimes, but overall, it’s nothing to worry about. And if you do feel like you’re going insane, you can always just move to a less populated area.