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Beyond the Comfort Zone: A Political Psychologist’s New Look at the City

One of the most bizarre and exciting aspects of the Lab so far has been the diversity of lenses through which we’ve been led to analyze the city and its problematic systems.

Seeing the city through the eyes of the activists, biologists, journalists, and architects on the Lab Team has been interesting enough. But perhaps even more radical has been the wild breadth of experts they have brought in to ruminate on these issues—from television producers to artists, poets, neuroscientists, and doctors.

But last week I had a conversation with one of our recent presenters, Emanuele Castano, that made me realize something even more amazing—that while presenters have been forcing Lab visitors to think about the city from completely new angles, the Lab, in turn, has done the same for some presenters.

Castano is a social and political psychologist who is an associate professor at the New School. He has traditionally focused on nationalism and international relations, intergroup conflict and reconciliation, and collective responsibility. His research, in part, looks at the social categorization that curtails empathy and leads to human conflict.

But before Lab Team member Charles Montgomery invited him to partake in a dialogue with neuroeconomist Paul Zak about building empathy and conviviality into our cities, and in the construction of Love Night, Castano had never really thought about how his research would apply in cities. Cities weren’t on his academic radar.

I found it fascinating to hear how he felt about applying such heavy concepts to the urban environment. What was it like for someone accustomed to researching genocide and mass conflict to be suddenly thrust into attempting to find solutions to urban problems?

But what I found even more exciting were the revelations he had about how his research could now be expanded to include urban problems; that his experience at the Lab may actually influence the research he pursues.

Check out the amazing video above, recommended by Castano, that explains in detail the evolution of empathy in our society, and see highlights of our conversation about applying this knowledge to the city below:

Q: At the Lab you were asked to speak about social categorization—our tendency to find “the other.” In a nutshell, what does this do to us, and why does it matter that we do it?

A: The social categorization process and the distinction process is a constant thing. We do it all the time. Sometimes it happens on very trivial dimensions, and it’s really highly influenced by the context. If you jump on your bike, suddenly you see the world as cyclists versus car drivers. Once you arrive at your destination and you put your bike away, after about five minutes you are the blogger, and the others, they are the public.… Some of these identities are very ingrained, like religion and nationality and gender, and they become very central to our sense of self, and others are very shifting and malleable. But no matter what they are in the specific context, we do this all the time, and this process really curtails empathy.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the experience of being forced to think about empathy in the context of the city?

A: It’s very true, usually psychologists don’t think about space. There are a few notable exceptions in literature, but the vast majority of us don’t really. But then as soon as you start thinking about it, there are so many things that ring so true and that everybody can relate to when it comes to the use of space. It’s made me really want to explore it further.… It inspired me to think about how design can influence experience in the psychological practice, but also how we can inform design based on what we know we should try and provoke in people. So in a way I’m very happy that it’s given me a new way to apply and to think about these things. Usually as an instructor you have your own way of thinking about things, but going out of your comfort zone can actually be really useful.

Q: When you started thinking about applying your work in empathy to the urban context, what were the first things that came to mind? Where did your thought process immediately go?

A: I went to issues of light and noise and temperature. There’s a lot of research. Not specifically done trying to understand city environments, but in the lab there’s a lot of research done on how temperature affects our mood, for instance, these types of things, and light as well.

Maybe because it was so foreign for me in my way of thinking that, when I was challenged to think about architectural space, I related it back to findings that I know exist in our research, on a very micro level, but that I think we can extrapolate from for an investigative project like this.

Q: Now that you’ve had a few months to marinate this in your brain, and you’re considering moving forward to look deeper into these issues, where do you think the intersection between your studies in empathy and city form lies? Where can we use the science of empathy most when thinking about urban design?

A: I think it’s too early to say, but what I mainly want to do is to engage in these discussions much more—engage in discussion exchange between people who are interested in urban design and people who are interested in the psychological processes; to kind of brainstorm. As soon as we engage in a discussion like today, people begin to comment on certain things and usually you can relate it back to research. There’s always something you can relate it back to, and sometimes they are obscure things that nobody really knows or has ever thought about in this way. But when you’re in discussion in this exchange then you make connections that you would not otherwise make at all.

Q: Any specific ideas that came up from the audience or things that Paul or Charles said that really caught your attention to think specifically more about?

A: Something that we didn’t discuss too much but that came up briefly was about cleanliness, and how dirty environments naturally elicit negative psychological processes. We almost did a study on this but it just didn’t get organized because to get permission from the MTA was difficult. We wanted to clean up completely a subway station and take measurements there on people to see if they did the same thing on a dirty day.

I think it’s a fine line. Some subways that are extremely clean actually look a little uncomfortable… but that’s something we can investigate. In a city like New York where such a large portion of us take the subway, it’s something that we should really pay attention to, something we should really be much more thoughtful about.

Q: Where is the value of looking at empathy in the city? With so many massive issues staring us in the face, why should we care?

A: I think that the environment impacts our feeling of connection to others. As Paul suggested, this reduces stress and, maybe also as an extension, it’s behind a lot of our fear in everyday society. Then there’s a massively deep, small, but long-lasting effect that also has a snowball effect. In other words, with more connection people would be more calm with people at work, in families, there would be better mental health, and better psychical health; these kinds of things that are impacted by anger and stress. So anything that diminishes that, even in small doses, will have a massive effect on the quality of our life in general. Yes, murders will still happen, but I don’t think that’s what we have in mind. It’s to increase your level of happiness and lower your level of stress. That’s the goal of society, and I don’t even think we could estimate the long-term effects.

Q: Why is the city an interesting or important place to be investigating these ideas?

A: There is the fact that a lot of what happens in the city is really driving what happens in a nation. There’s a translation of ideas. Media is built and comes much more out of cities than rural areas, so that’s part of it. But it’s also that the trend has been for more and more people to be living in cities, and so if you can change a city—if you can change New York—you change a number of people at once.