Simply walking through a sketchy-looking neighborhood can make you feel more paranoid and lower your trust in others.
In a study published in the journal PeerJ, student volunteers who spent less than an hour in a more dangerous neighborhood showed significant changes in some of their social perceptions.
The researchers’ goal was to investigate the relationship between lower income neighborhoods and reduced trust and poor mental health. While the association is well known, the scientists, from Newcastle University in the UK, wanted to determine whether the connection was due to people reacting to the environment around them, or because those who are generally less trusting were more likely to live in troubled areas. Prior research showed that kids who grew up in such neighborhoods were less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to develop stress that can lead to depression.
The study took 50 students, sent half of them to a low income, high crime neighborhood and the other half to an affluent neighborhood with little crime. Before the students ventured into their respective areas, the researchers interviewed the neighborhood residents and found that residents of the high-crime neighborhood harbored more feelings of paranoia and lower levels of social trust compared to the residents of the other neighborhood.
The students in the study were not from either neighborhood, and did not know what the study was about. They were were dropped off by a taxi and told to deliver envelopes containing a packet of questions to a list of residential addresses. They spent 45 minutes walking around their assigned neighborhood distributing the envelopes. When the students returned, the researchers surveyed them about their experience, their feelings of trust, and their feelings of paranoia.
Despite the short amount of time they spent in the neighborhoods, the students picked up the prevailing social attitudes of the residents living in those environments; those who went to the more dangerous neighborhood scored higher on measures of paranoia and lower on measures of trust compared to the other group, just as the residents had. Not only that, but their levels of reported paranoia and trust were indistinguishable from the residents who spent years living there.
That came as an intriguing surprise to other experts. Ingrid Gould Ellen, the director of the Urban Planning Program at New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, studies how the make-up of neighborhoods can impact the attitudes and interactions of people who live in them. In her research, she and her colleagues found that kids who live on blocks where violent crimes occurred the week before they took a standardized test performed worse on those tests than students from similar backgrounds who were not exposed to a violent crime in their neighborhood before their exam. But the fact that the paranoia and lack of trust set in after just a short time in the more troubled neighborhood suggested how powerful the influence of these environments can be. “In the case of this UK study, it seems unlikely that study participants were actually exposed to crime during their brief visits. But somehow the physical or social cues in the neighborhood suggested to them that these were unsafe areas,” says Ellen.
For urban planners, the findings confirm what most probably understood instinctively — that people do tend to make snap judgments about both their environments and the people in them based on visual cues such as broken windows and abandoned houses. But the results also show how these cues can influence deeper perceptions and mental states as well.
Still, before they are used to impact policy, Ellen says it’s important to better understand exactly which environmental conditions were critical to shaping the feelings that the visitors had. For example, “It would be interesting to learn if there were racial or ethnic differences in the populations living in the two neighborhoods,” she says. “People ‘stereotype’ neighborhoods based on visible, racial composition. Could the responses of the students be telling us something about their implicit racial biases?”
As more studies tease apart these answers, the researchers suggest that even superficial changes to a neighborhood could have long lasting effects not only on visitors but on social relationships among residents as well.