- LIFE & CULTURE
- March 30, 2012, 6:55 p.m. ET
How Big Cities Can Lead to Small Thoughts
By RYAN SAGER
Cities are famous for being incubators of creativity and ideas, fueled by diversity and constant exposure to people unlike ourselves. But two new studies on friendship and people’s cellphone habits complicate that picture by offering hints that the bigger our pond, the smaller we may make our world.
At a conference on social networks earlier this month, researchers from the Norwegian telecom provider Telenor presented findings based on the electronic records of nearly three million phones on its network over a period of years. They discovered that users of iPhones and Android devices constitute two distinct “tribes,” with far more contact among members of each tribe than between tribes. If three of your friends have iPhones, for instance, you’re six times more likely to own one yourself. Android phones displayed a similar but weaker effect.
What’s most illuminating, though, is how this effect plays out geographically. Whereas iPhones dominate the cities, Android does better in smaller towns and rural areas. (The research was on Norwegian consumers but matches up with surveys showing that American Android users are more likely to live in rural areas than are iPhone users.)
Why might this be? “The iPhone is a very flashy product,” says Pål Roe Sundsøy, one of the researchers on the Telenor team. People in cities have denser social networks and more interactions with people who live close to them, so trendy products spread faster among them—along with peer pressure to have the latest, hottest gizmo.
There’s also a darker side to this effect: In cities, ideas and opinions, like product preferences, can spread virally and congeal into conventional wisdom. Cities thus risk becoming incubators of groupthink.
Another new paper clarifies how this process might work. Researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas investigated friendships at that 25,000-student institution and at four smaller colleges in the state. “People would expect in bigger and more diverse places you’d come into contact with a bigger and more diverse set of people,” says lead researcher Angela Bahns, a social psychologist at Wellesley. “But you find the exact opposite.”
The researchers gave pairs of friends separate questionnaires on their lifestyles (how often they drank, exercised, etc.) and opinions (on topics such as abortion) and found that the bigger the school, the more similar friends were to one another. In follow-up research, not yet published, Ms. Bahns and her team found similar results comparing big cities like New York and Chicago to smaller ones like Iowa City and Lawrence, Kan.
How can more people and more diversity lead to less diverse friendships? It’s simple, really: We like people who are like us. Social scientists call it the “similarity-attraction effect,” and it influences everything from whom we date and hire to where we choose to live. The bigger the pond, the more likely we are—consciously or not—to swim around until we find a group of like and like-minded people.
“Though big cities have more than their share of trailblazers, with gentrification they’re attracting wealthier and more risk-averse, group-oriented types,” says Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which explored the question of which cities are most creative and why. “Hipster urban cultures can be just as monolithic, homogenous and creativity-squelching as any other,” he says.
For all the admiration heaped on cities as sources of creative frisson, there’s nothing magic about concrete and good cappuccino that keeps us from sorting ourselves into social satrapies. Sometimes it’s a trendy phone, sometimes it’s a monolithic political or ideological culture. But whatever it is, “small town” thinking can crop up as easily in the megalopolis as in Palookaville. For those satisfied in their city ways, it may just take a little extra effort to Think Different.
—Mr. Sager is deputy editor of Review. Matt Ridley is off this week.A version of this article appeared Mar. 31, 2012, on page C4 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Big Cities Can Lead to Small Thoughts.
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