Coming from a large family, I can attest to the fact that trying to find your own space can be difficult. Even though it is learned from birth to share, when it comes down to living with family, children don’t usually want to. Living with a large family in a small house is difficult, but what would happen if someone placed 200 people into a house, barred the doors to prevent the people from escaping, and only left enough food and water to last seven people for a week? How would being trapped in the confines of a small house with not enough room to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom change the 200 individual’s social cognition? The results seem something out of a bad horror movie.
The study of population density and social pathology was heavily researched by ecologist John B Calhoun. He performed many controversial experiments on rats to see what would happen if he put too many rats in one habitat with not enough food, bedding, and females to go around. For the first few days the behavior was normal, but as the rats began to realize the food was in scarce supply, the cognition of the rats completely changed. The rats bred rapidly, and turned into what Calhoun called “rat city”. The unwanted social contact plus the amount of babies being born began to put cognitive stress on the rats and began to lead to aggression. The adrenal systems in the rats began mass producing adrenaline, and cortisol levels increased as well. The evolutionary fight or flight responses kicked in, but with nowhere to flee, fighting became the only option. The rats began to resort to cannibalism for food; picking off the weak, and eating all the pups. Some of the more aggressive mothers kept the remaining pups safe, fighting off other rats to ensure the survival of their offspring. As the numbers of females began to decrease, the males became hypersexual, polyamorous, and once the numbers of females began to dwindle, homosexual. (Calhoun, J.B. 1962) Because this behavior leads to basic extinction, save for the last few rats, Calhoun dubbed this phenomenon the “behavioural sink”, as the numbers in population declined like water down a drain. The last few rats remained withdrawn and traumatized as the numbers declined enough for the remaining rats to survive in the space. The remaining rats lived the rest of their short lives in a unified mass. When the traumatized rats were introduced to new colonies, they remained “socially autistic” and solitary until death. (Ramsden, E. 2009)
Calhoun tried to extrapolate his research onto human populations, but he died before he had a chance to do anymore “controversial” studies on any other group of animals or humans. For humans, we cognitively feel crowded when the actual number of people we see in a location is more than the intended number of people expected to be there. If people are in a public venue such as a swimming pool or a locker room, and the number of people in the area exceeds the number of people they thought would be in the area, it greatly impacts out cognitive ability to have fun in relation to swimming pools, or feel safe in relation to change rooms. There are four cognitive tools humans use to feel safer in crowded venues:
- Site succession: When visiting places for the first time, an individual gets an impression of the place they visited. Was it fun? Was it crowded? Was it dangerous? The next time they go back to this place, they will have only the first impression to go off of, so they will expect it to be the same. By using site succession, an individual can alter future visits to this location by cognitively realizing a location will never have the same atmosphere twice, so we won’t be nervous or stressed when he experience is inevitably different.
- Product Shift: change the label applied to the experience. If the individual goes back the second time with an open mind, and the idea that it could be more crowded than it was last time, it will set up the individual and prevent the shock and suffocation of too many unfamiliar faces they weren’t expecting to see.
- Dissonance Reduction: A cognitive coping strategy that involves an individual to maintain a state of their cognitive consistency or balance. Recreationists cope with the negative impacts of crowding by a rationalization process that minimizes the dissonance caused by crowding, and increases the positive aspects of the experience. They may seek new, constant information to maintain their cognitive consistency, they may change their attitude, or they may change their situation to minimize the amount of dissonance experienced.
- Displacement: The displacement method of cognitively dealing with a potential anxiety inducing crowded area is to choose to alter their participation patterns. This means they may seek out less crowded areas in order for them to have a good time. They may actively avoid encounters with others, shift their activity to a less dense portion of the population, or shift locations entirely. (Kuentzel, W.F. & Heberlein, T.A. 1992)
Regardless of these cognitive coping strategies, human beings do get placed in social situations in which they act exactly like the rats did in Calhoun’s experiment. Where are these terrible places? Prisons. Particularly privatized American prisons, which have more prisoners than space for prisoners. The violent, antisocial, and hypersexual qualities of the rats in Calhoun’s experiment can be extrapolated onto the broken psyche of prison inmates when placed in confinement with not enough room. IN the prisons that the book by Paul Paulus refers to, the group cells of three to nine people in them in which negative cognitive effects of crowding can result in erratic behavior which may even be out of character for inmates in prison for non-violent crimes. A better solution to the adverse cognitive thoughts crowding can have on behavior is to teach prisoners these tricks for ridding themselves of some emotional tension that may lead to scary, violent behavior. (Paulus, P. 1998)
Calhoun JB. (1962). Population Density and Social Pathology. Sci Am 306:139-48.
Kuentzel, W.F. & Heberlein, T.A. (1992). Cognitive and Behavioural Adaptations to Perceived Crowding: A Panel Study of Coping and Displacement. Journal of Leisure Research, 24(4). 337.
Paulus P. (1988). Prison crowding: a psychological perspective. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. 8.
Ramsden, E. (2009). The urban animal: population density and social pathology in rodents and humans. Bull World Health Organ, 87(2) 1.