Thursday, July 11, 2013

On Dog-Walking and the Neighborhood Effect

The cul-de-sac street on which I live has 20 houses. There are three smaller cul-de-sac offshoots of my street with a few houses each; so, altogether 36 houses including mine ultimately share a single exit onto the main road. (The word “main” may give a false impression.) Police love street arrangements like this, since they can block off a whole area at a single chokepoint. Firefighters hate them for the same reason. I don’t know what the total population of my neighborhood is, but a very generous supposition of 4 occupants per home would give a total of 144. This is almost certainly a significant overshoot; I don’t see many kids outside, and I know for sure of 2 homes, including mine, in which the occupancy is merely 1. So, 144 is a maximum, and something like 100 much more likely.

When the street was built in the 1970s, I knew by name almost everyone on it. (What is now my house belonged to my parents at the time, but I still knew the neighbors.) I don’t anymore. Only 3 of the original 1970s buyers are still there, and I never got to know the replacements – some of the homes have sold three or four times since then. Accordingly, as is more common than not these days, I live amid strangers. Yet not quite. When I drive past someone walking a dog – or just walking – on my street, we exchange courteous waves and smiles; if we’re both walking we exchange verbal pleasantries as we pass. No such exchange happens once I turn onto the main road, even if the dog-walker is someone I’ve passed 500 times. (Dog-walkers tend to have routine schedules, so if you drive on a schedule you will see the same ones again and again.) Yes, I’ve tried, just as experiments. My waves on the main road – or any other road – merely get quizzical and somewhat suspicious stares back. This is the neighborhood effect, created not just by the chokepoint at the stop sign but by the population size on my home’s side of it.

Anthropologists studying ancient pre-civilized peoples and surviving hunter-gatherers encounter the numerical range 100-150 time and again; it is the common group size among people who lived or still live in a way matching the conditions in which humans evolved. (20-50, as a subdivision of a larger 150 group, also recurs, but for the moment I’m interested in the bigger number.) It is the group size within which people can interact socially and meaningfully without undue strain – in a larger population it’s hard for members to keep track of each other’s personal details. There is a correlation in primate species between cortex development and the size of the close social groups they can maintain. In her book I See Rude People, self-described “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon noted that evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar did the math on this for humans and came up with 148.3. He then looked at 21 surviving hunter-gatherer groups in various environments and found the average village population to be 148.4. In the crowded conditions of more technically advanced societies, people find ways to re-create those group sizes. The average Christmas card list is 154. Armies commonly have units about this size, e.g. the Roman centuriae or US Army companies. Dunbar notes the sociological principle that groups larger than 150-200 need some sort of central authority to maintain order and cohesion, while smaller groups often can get by with informal arrangements and controls (i.e. peer pressure). This is one reason small towns typically are so safe. There is a practical problem to being a rogue in a small town. How, for example, can you hold up the liquor store when the owner and all the patrons know your mother?

I experienced a culture shock first hand when I graduated high school and went to college. The student population at my prep school never exceeded 120, all grades combined; add in faculty and staff, and the total on campus hovered around 150. By the end of each school year, I knew every single one of those 150 by name, and knew at least something about the personal quirks of each. At GWU, on the other hand, where the student population was 25,000, I was unlikely ever to see (or at least recognize) again the majority of fellow students in any particular class I took. I certainly didn’t know the names of any but 1 or 2 in a class (not in every class though) with whom I made a point of striking an acquaintance. As for all the others, we would pass each other on the sidewalk with the indifference and lack of recognition shown by typical pedestrians in any large town or city. So, the different responses of dog-walkers should come as no surprise. Even though the folks in my current neighborhood don’t, in fact, socialize much, something about the size of the group created by the geography resonates with us on a primal level, so we smile and wave this side of the stop sign but not on the other: us vs. them.

This, I think, has much to do with rising rudeness and discourtesy much decried in the press lately – a rudeness evident in public places and starkly evident online. Few of the people we encounter nowadays belong to an “us” group of 150. They are outsiders, which in Paleolithic terms means they are no one we need care about – unless perhaps as fit targets for raiding parties. Amy Alkon’s solution to this is confrontational. When annoyed by another Starbuck’s patron shouting into his cell phone, for example, she took down his cell phone number, which he helpfully shouted, and called him the next morning. She told him if he didn’t want to be called by strangers, maybe he shouldn’t shout out his number in a coffee shop. The story of how she recovered her stolen pink Nash Rambler is best read first hand. She says that people are not naturally hard-wired to exert peer pressure on strangers (they’re outside our 150, and therefore “them” not “us”) so public rudeness normally goes unchecked. She makes a point of delivering checks. Keep in mind that this may work better (i.e. is less likely to lead to violence) for pretty redheads like Amy than for the rest of us.

Russell Brand’s Courtesy Lesson


  1. Excellent observations as usual. :) I usually take a walk around my block when I'm working from home. There are a usual set of faces I see around that time of the morning - 9:30 or so. One gent is walking his old Golden Retriever. There's a lady who sits on her porch with her cat and smokes. On Monday's and Wednesday there's a gardener who is usually out working on the flower beds. I know all these folks, by smile, "good morning" and a nod. But not much else. The only person I know by name in our neighborhood is our next door neighbor who came by to ask us about his woodworking and if 9am was too early to start the circular saw on Saturday. :)

    1. The number of people we know by name has not diminished in the last several decades -- it's probably gone up, though I haven't researched it. However, I can see the extent to which geography has diminished as a factor in who they are. When I was 5 my parents knew everyone on the street (I still remember many of the last names), as was common at the time. Now I know hardly anyone on my street by name, as is common at this time. I don't see that as either good or bad, particularly, but it is a change.

      Your neighbor was polite to ask. I suppose the answer may depend on what time one returns from one's Friday night out.