The ethologist John B. Calhoun coined the term "behavioral sink" to describe the collapse in behavior which resulted from overcrowding. Over a number of years, Calhoun conducted over-population experiments on Norway rats (in 1958–1962) and mice (in 1968–1972). Calhoun coined the term "behavioral sink" in his February 1, 1962 report in an article titled Population Density and Social Pathology in Scientific American on the rat experiment. Calhoun's work became used as an animal model of societal collapse, and his study has become a touchstone of urban sociology and psychology in general.Sounds like it is a widely accepted concept and is also widely extended as a metaphor to humans.
But I wonder whether the issue might be less about population density than perhaps it is about increasing cognitive complexity. More affiliative networks, more complexity within those networks, complicated by a loss of settled parameters (traditions, folkways, religion) and a decline in trusted institutions.
The proposition might be that greater affiliative density and complexity induces psychological stress. Clay Shirky has proposed something of this nature in Cognitive Surplus.
In the 1720s, London was busy getting drunk. Really drunk. The city was in the grips of a gin-drinking binge, largely driven by new arrivals from the countryside in search of work. The characteristics of gin were attractive: fermented with grain that could be bought locally, packing a kick greater than that of beer, and considerably less expensive than imported wine, gin became a kind of anesthetic for the burgeoning population enduring profound new stresses of urban life. These stresses generated new behaviors, including what came to be called the Gin Craze.Shirky also focuses on population density but alludes to what I think is the real culprit, complexity.
Gin pushcarts plied the streets of London; if you couldn’t afford a whole glass, you could buy a gin-soaked rag, and flop-houses did brisk business renting straw pallets by the hour if you needed to sleep off the effects. It was a kind of social lubricant for people suddenly tipped into an unfamiliar and often unforgiving life, keeping them from completely falling apart. Gin offered its consumers the ability to fall apart a little bit at a time. It was a collective bender, at civic scale.
The Gin Craze was a real event—gin consumption rose dramatically in the early 1700s, even as consumption of beer and wine remained flat. It was also a change in perception. England’s wealthy and titled were increasingly alarmed by what they saw in the streets of London. The population was growing at a historically unprecedented rate, with predictable effects on living conditions and public health, and crime of all sorts was on the rise. Especially upsetting was that the women of London had taken to drinking gin, often gathering in mixed-sex gin halls, proof positive of its corrosive effects on social norms.
It isn’t hard to figure out why people were drinking gin. It is palatable and intoxicating, a winning combination, especially when a chaotic world can make sobriety seem overrated. Gin drinking provided a coping mechanism for people suddenly thrown together in the early decades of the industrial age, making it an urban phenomenon, especially concentrated in London. London was the site of the biggest influx of population as a result of industrialization. From the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s, the population of London grew two and a half times as fast as the overall population of England; by 1750, one English citizen in ten lived there, up from one in twenty-five a century earlier.
I have been mulling this for some time. What happens when life becomes increasingly complex? The Flynn Effect, a global rise in IQ in developed countries on the order of 3 IQ points a decade, indicates that our brains are adjusting to living more complex lives. As Flynn puts it:
On an IQ test, the average person today would be 30 points above his or her grandparents, so we are not getting any dumber. But are we smarter? That’s a more complicated idea. In fact, it’s the subject of my next book: “Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ and the Twenty-First Century.”The model I have been playing with is this:
I would prefer to say that our minds are 'more modern' than those of our ancestors.
If the question is “Do we have better brain potential at conception,” or “Were our ancestors too stupid to deal with the concrete world of everyday life,” the answer is no. If the question is “Do we live in a time that poses a wider range of cognitive problems than our ancestors encountered, and have we developed new cognitive skills and the kind of brain that can deal with them,” the answer is yes.
I would prefer to say that our minds are “more modern” than those of our ancestors. Our ancestors lived in a world that was concrete and utilitarian. In 1900, schoolchildren were asked, “What are the capitals of the 46 states?” Today they are asked, “If rural representatives dominated a state legislature, where would they put the capital?” (The answer is that, because they hate big cities, they would put the state capital in Albany rather than New York City.) In other words, we take applying logic to hypothetical situations seriously, plus of course playing video games that take us into hypothetical and symbolic worlds.
The observation is that as we have moved from small scale hunter gatherer societies into settled agriculture then into settled urban trading networks then into the industrial age and now into the information age, we have seen increasing productivity and therefore prosperity but also increasing complexity. Everything becomes denser, more complex, more contingent, more precise, more abstract. Complexity is demanding a more modern mind.
For any individual within a modern society, there is some sort of ability stack (h/t Scott Adams). An individual's prosperity is the result of some combination of inherited Capabilities (IQ, health, height, attractiveness, etc.), Big 5 Personality Traits, Motivation, Behavior, Values, Skills, Experience and Education Attainment. Exceptional performance on a single trait is a poor indicator. You might be +1 SD on one trait but - 2SD on another. High IQ in combination with an abrasive neurotic personality mixed with low drive and aimlessness is not a winning combination. It is the precise mix of abilities in combination with one another and in the particular context which create high degrees of success.
That model itself is one worth thinking about and exploring which is what I have been doing.
But add one more element and it becomes even more intriguing but also troubling.
Historically the US military has not admitted anyone with an IQ below one SD of the mean, i.e. below 85, about 16% of the population. The argument, based on experience, was that such inductees were unable to reliably acquire the skills necessary for modern war - rules and orders, weapons mastery, etc. This policy was loosened in the Vietnam War under McNamara's Project 100,000. Requiring more soldiers than could be provided under the existing standards, the requirements were loosened, providing an extra 350,000 soldiers (of the 2.7 million who served in Vietnam). The experiment was deemed a distracting failure and the older standards were later reintroduced.
The broader implication is that in a modern society, those below a certain capability have an increasingly difficult life experience. That there might be a complexity frontier that is moving up the ability bell curve.
If you take Per Capita GNP as a crude proxy for societal/economic complexity, I wonder if there might be an advancing frontier that is slowly shutting out more and more people.
Some modest supporting evidence is that in the US, our middle class is thinning out. Thinning because most people in the middle are becoming more prosperous though some are slipping into the lower echelons. This thinning of the middle suggests that there is a complexity frontier creeping up on us, making the capable even more prosperous but the prospects for the less capable more uncertain.
Perhaps I am overthinking it but I have a gut feel that there are some real issues in here for which we are not well prepared.