Social scientists have often studied the characteristics of a surrounding neighborhood to understand their connection to a resident's personal traits of trust, criminality, antisocial behavior, paranoia, violence, or depression. In a recent study, researchers discovered that visitors to a particular neighborhood developed a level of trust and paranoia comparable to the residents in as little as 45 minutes. “To explain associations between social deprivation or environmental harshness and behaviour, we may need to consider not just irreversible developmental effects, but also people’s ongoing ‘diet’ of exposure to particular current contextual cues,” the authors wrote in their study, which appears online in PeerJ.

Cause or Effect?

Previous studies have established that living in a deprived area is associated with poorer mental health and a less trusting outlook, however no study has proven which comes first: Do people become less trusting in response to their surroundings, or do people who are less trusting from the start tend to reside in more deprived areas? Researchers from the School of Psychology at Newcastle University decided to run an experiment to explore the cause and effect of this relationship. Between July 2012 and June 2013, the researchers used questionnaires to measure residents’ levels of trust and paranoia in two very different communities. Predictably, the team discovered that residents living in the deprived neighborhood displayed lower levels of social trust and higher levels of paranoia than those living in the affluent neighborhood.

Next, the researchers recruited 52 student volunteers, who were not from either neighborhood. These participants were randomly assigned to one neighborhood or the other and then bussed there in small groups with one of the experimenters. At a particular drop-off point, volunteers were each given a packet of questionnaires, a list of resident addresses, and a map, and then instructed to deliver the questionnaires. Lastly, the participants, who had no knowledge of the purpose of the study, were instructed to return to the waiting vehicle after 45 minutes even if they had not successfully found all target addresses.

After the student volunteers completed the mission, the researchers measured their levels of trust and paranoia and discovered significant differences between the two groups depending on which neighborhood they had visited. In fact, the measurements of trust and paranoia mirrored those of the residents, with participants who visited the deprived community reporting lower social trust and higher paranoia than those who visited the affluent one. “Individuals might be quite stable in their trust and paranoia if measured repeatedly over time, but this could simply mean that their exposure to the triggering cues occurs continually,” the authors wrote. “It does not mean that their trust and paranoia would not change if their environment changed.” Yet would all people be equally sensitive to their environment and so effortlessly and quickly respond to its transformation?

Health Impact

The results of the study certainly imply that any negative impact on residents might rapidly reverse if an environment were to be upgraded, yet it is not so clear as to whether the health of people negatively impacted by a bad neighborhood would be so quick to improve if their environment changed for the better. “Especially as all the evidence suggests that the health impacts of stress arise cumulatively from the life stress you are exposed to,” Dr. Daniel Nettle, professor of behavioral science at Newcastle University, told Medical Daily in an email. “This means that even if the stress is improved, there is still going to be a legacy of embodied adversity that might stay with you for a long time. But we should not be too fatalistic about this — I still think if you can improve people's circumstances, it's always a good thing.”

Asked if the age of participants affected the study results — would the outcome be different if older, more worldly volunteers visited each neighborhood? “It may be that young people at that age are particularly malleable, but I have no direct evidence that this is the case,” Nettle told Medical Daily.

Finally, although the current study did illustrate how an environment influences an individual, it doesn't explain whether it is the sights, the sounds, the way the people behave, the litter on the sidewalk, or something else that creates such profound effects. “I think the next step would be to do experiments investigating carefully what kinds of cues people respond to in their judgements about their environment,” Nettle told Medical Daily. “This could help with working out practical implications — such as the value of clearing up litter for mental health.” Certainly, the results of this study and its clear link between environment and mental health should be remembered by urban planners, policy-makers... and the rest of us.

Source: Nettle D, Pepper GV, Jobling R, Schroeder KB. Being there: a brief visit to a neighbourhood induces the social attitudes of that neighbourhood. PeerJ. 2014.