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Evolutionary Psychology

Custodians of the Neighborhood

The evolutionary psychology of keeping things straight and secure

A few weeks ago, a car bumped into the stop sign at the end of our street—leaving it awkwardly off-kilter. As someone with “custodial tendencies,” I quickly said to myself that if the town didn’t come and fix it soon, I’d head to the end of the street with my shovel and a level, and set it straight. I just finished doing that right before I sat down. I do stuff like that all the time. I’m not fully sure why I have such custodial tendencies, but I figure it could be worse.

This said, as luck would have it, there is some great research out there on understanding such custodial behaviors from an evolutionary perspective. This research, largely conducted by David Sloan Wilson (2011) and Dan O'Brien (see O'Brien & Wilson, 2011), along with their colleagues/students at Binghamton University, examines behaviors of individuals within neighborhoods from an evolutionary-ecological perspective. That pretty much means that we can understand neighborhood behaviors by applying an evolutionary lens—asking how patterns of behaviors of individuals within neighborhoods serve the individual actors, their families, their neighborhoods, and their broader communities.

Social Capital

One thing that Wilson, O'Brien, and their colleagues focus on in regard to neighbor-related behavior pertains to social capital—a term that generally pertains to how well the people in a neighborhood demonstrate respect for the neighborhood and display markers of connections to one another. You can see how neighborhoods vary on this one when it comes to Christmas decorations. In some neighborhoods, people go over the top—white lights, colored lights, blinking lights, Santa, Snowman, blow-up Grinch, etc. In other neighborhoods, you’d barely know what season it is. Neighborhoods that get all decked out for the holidays can be thought of as higher on social capital—and it turns out that when you study people from these neighborhood compared with neighborhoods that are lower in social capital, the folks from high-social-capital neighborhoods feel safer and more connected to others in their community. What is the function of getting out the Christmas decorations each year? Well it may be a lot of work, but it’s a great way to display social capital which is a glue that connects people to one another.

Neighborhoods in Disrepair

On the flip side, neighborhoods that are in disrepair don’t “look as nice.” They may be laden with potholes, weeds coming out of the sidewalks, broken streetlights, and the like. You might wonder how these seemingly aesthetic details actually affect quality of life. It turns out that they do. In neighborhoods that suffer from disrepair—that is, neighborhoods low in social capital—people behave less altruistically to one another. They feel less connected to one another. And they feel less safe. And you have to think, if you’re looking to rob a house (bad idea, BTW—don’t do it!), you would probably see a house in a low-social-capital neighborhood as an easier opportunity compared with one in a high-social-capital neighborhood—because all the features of a high-social-capital neighborhood signal this: We are here and we care about this place, and we keep an eye on one another. Run along! A straight-up stop sign at the end of the road says this. A stop sign that sits cock-eyed for months on end, says quite the opposite.

Interestingly, these effects of social capital that O'Brien, Wilson, and their colleagues documented existed largely independently of socioeconomic status. So among two very wealthy neighborhoods, the one with higher social capital tends to have people who feel safer and better connected to others—and among two very poor neighborhoods, the same pattern applies. Displays of social capital seem to be a crucial way that modern humans display territory and provide security for those close to them.

Custodians of the Neighborhood

In a great set of studies conducted under the auspices of the Boston Area Research Initiative, Dan O’Brien and his colleagues (2014) examined closely the tendency for individuals to act as custodians* within their neighborhoods. This research, conducted throughout the city of Boston, used calls to the city’s 311 hotline as a marker of prosocial behavior. 311 hotlines, becoming common among cities all around, is sort of like 911-light. It’s used for calling in things that should be brought to the attention of the municipality, but are not life-threatening. For instance, you’d call 311 to report graffiti or a broken street light.

By using GPS technology, O’Brien and his team have been able to map out patterns of 311 reporting behavior. And the data tell some very interesting stories—stories that betray our evolutionarily based mindset. Two of O’Brien’s main findings include the following:

1. Few people take on a custodial role within a neighborhood. Defining custodians as those who make multiple calls to 311 within a specified time period, it looks like only about 3-6% of the folks in a neighborhood seem to take on this role.

2. Custodial behavior tends to be neighborhood-specific. When you look at the patterns of calls from people who make multiple 311 calls, it’s clear that people are WAY more likely to call about problems in their immediate neighborhoods—or nearby (within a few blocks). If Joe lives in the North End and finds himself in Chinatown one day—and spots some graffiti down there, he’s less likely to call that in compared with the graffiti that he finds on the stop sign across the street from his apartment when he gets back home. Prosociality has geographical boundaries.

When you step back and look at custodial behavior, there’s a clearly self-interested element to it. Sure, I may have fixed a stop sign, but I didn’t fix the stop sign in a neighborhood on the other side of town. I fixed the stop sign at the end of the road in the neighborhood that I have lived in for over seven years. That’s the nature of custodial behavior in critters like us!

Why do We Mow the Lawn, Rake the Leaves, and Plant Nice Bushes?

If you’re like me, then a good percentage of your time, across the year, is spent mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, shoveling the driveway, setting up Christmas lights, taking down Christmas lights, etc. Our house and property hardly make us the Joneses of our neighborhood, but we make sure to keep things up to par as best we can. Why do we do this? Why do we take care of our properties and, by extension, our neighborhoods and communities therein? The answer partly is this: Doing so displays social capital—a glue that inter-connects people and that creates perceptions of security. Have we evolved so as to try to establish harmonious social connections and a sense of security for our family and friends? Yeah, I think so!


*this use of the term "custodian" was coined by Dan O'Brien

O’Brien, D.T., Gordon, E., & Philippi-Baldwin, J. (2014). Territoriality, attachment to space and community, and maintenance of the public space: A field study integrating administrative records of reports of public issues with self-reports. Journal of Environmental Psychology.

O’Brien, D.T., Wilson, D.S. 2011. Community Perception: The ability to assess the safety of unfamiliar neighborhoods and respond adaptively. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100: 606-620.

O’Brien, D. T. (2015). 311 Hotlines and the Maintenance of the Urban Commons: Examining the Intersection of Policy and the Evolved Human Animal

STREAMING VIDEO LECTURE from SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Seminar Series

Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

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