Why big cities can be psychologically freeing

I’ve been in Los Angeles for the past week. The place is huge.

San Francisco feels like a small town in comparison.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that our physical environment has a profound impact on our mood and worldview… and cities like this always cause a massive shift in my perspective.

Big, sprawling cities have always made me feel excited and hopeful. They trigger my inner explorer. I get the strong urge to just travel out into the great beyond, looking for novelty and treasure. This must have been how the frontiersmen and women of old must have felt.

Big, sprawling cities also make me feel surprisingly free.

This is something I always noticed during my undergrad days at Stanford.

Stanford is a surprisingly small place. When I was there, there were only about 6000 undergraduates. Within a few weeks, you knew around half of the people in your class.

And reputations travel quickly. If you partied a little too much during those first few weeks, you got pegged as the “party guy”. If you were a little too nerdy and studious, you got pegged as the no-fun nerd. And so on.

Your identity was, in large part, formed during those first few critical months of freshman year.

Reputations, while they can be wonderful assets, are also binding. The way that you act is a function of how you see yourself and how others treat you—and both of these things are partially determined by the widely circulated opinions of others (AKA, your reputation). Even if you want to change, the beliefs of others will dictate how they treat you and how you’ll act in return.

I always wondered how certain classmates of mine could have developed differently if they had been able to escape the reputations they earned during their first year. What could they have become?

That’s one of the beauties of a large college—it grants the students there the chance to escape their old social identities and try on new ones if necessary. The size of the community grants each individual enough anonymity to press the “do over” button if necessary.

I feel the same thing down here in Los Angeles.

The city is large enough that it’s unlikely you’ll ever run into the same person twice.

And there are enough scenes and social cliques that you could spend the rest of your life trying on different identities if you wanted to.

And that points us to the key thing providing this sense of freedom and psychological safety: a feeling of anonymity.

The psychology of anonymity is something that I’ve been fascinated by for awhile. It’s why anonymous surveys are so good at eliciting honest and critical feedback. When there’s no fear of social retribution, individuals feel free to speak the truth.

That’s why company feedback systems that attach a person’s name to their comments will suffer from positively-skewed results. There’s a large social cost to saying anything that violates group norms or derogates those with power. Get rid of the social cost and you'll get a much more realistic understanding of the state of things.

This is also one of the reasons why I think that individuals who feel in an “inescapable rut” should seriously think about moving to a new, large city. Not only does changing your environment allow you to break all of your old habits (since habits are dependent on the environment in which they occur), but it allows you to partially shed your old identity and start anew. It’s a drastic action, but sometimes desperate circumstances call for equally bold actions.

Until tomorrow,

Jason

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Jason Hreha