Apr 28, 2011
You find yourself in the middle of a
bunch of streets and buildings in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Giving
the environment a quick once-over, you make a snap decision about
whether you're safe or not. Chances are, that 'gut' call is the
Binghamton University evolutionary biologists Dan O'Brien and
David Sloan Wilson set out to test whether we do indeed have
the capacity to judge urban neighborhood safety just by looking at
physical structures, reports the Journal of Personality and Social
They showed participants a selection of photos taken in unfamiliar
neighborhoods and then asked them to rate what they thought the
social quality in each of these environments might be, according to
a Binghamton statement.
The responses were then compared to the results of a previous study
O'Brien and Wilson had conducted in which participants were asked to
rate their own neighborhoods on a similar scale. Interestingly
enough, the ratings between the two study groups proved very
If an outsider thought a neighborhood looked safe, people actually
living were able to verify it.
The question remained, however, what
cues in a neighborhood help an individual to come to these
"Sociologists have long understood
that signs of 'disorder' - loose garbage and broken windows -
indicate a weak community that is vulnerable to criminal
behavior," said O'Brien.
"And further investigation verified that participants were
indeed equating unkempt lawns, peeling paint and unchecked
litter with a lack of safety.
"We already know that most of us use available cues to judge
people we've just met. Why not neighborhoods? The information is
there, the question was just whether we pay attention to it or
It appears that we do, and O'Brien and
Wilson have termed this ability "community perception".
'Gut Feeling' May Be Connected to Past
by Alan Mozes
Have a hunch that something’s about to go terribly wrong?
It may just be paranoia. Or, researchers
suggest, it may be an entirely accurate “gut feeling” based on
subtle, unconscious comparisons with past events.
“The bottom line is that sometimes
when people get a hunch, it’s not mysterious,” said study lead
author Dr. Edward S. Katkin of the State University of
New York at Stony Brook.
“It’s because people are in a
situation that has been associated with some event in the past -
they might not consciously remember it but their guts do. And so
they get a sense that something is going to happen.”
In their research, Katkin’s team tested
whether or not gut feelings might accurately predict events, and
which sensory cues worked to provoke such hunches.
Their study included 36 male and female undergraduate students aged
18 to 41. The researchers first measured each participant’s general
sensitivity to stimuli by assessing their ability to accurately
monitor their own heartbeat while simply sitting still.
Katkin’s group classified one third of the individuals to be good
‘heartbeat detectors,’ while the remaining two-thirds were judged to
have poor sensitivity in that respect.
They then showed all the students films of spiders and snakes
intercut with abstract images - moving too quickly for the students
to consciously register what they saw. Upon a first viewing, small
shocks were administered randomly following certain images. Upon a
second viewing, students were asked to predict when the shocks would
Katkin and his team report that those students who had been
determined to have high sensitivity to sensory cues - the good
heartbeat detectors - predicted the occurrence of shocks better than
those who had poor sensitivity.
They conclude that even though none of the students could recognize
any of the images they had seen, those with high sensitivity had
absorbed the images subconsciously and linked them intuitively with
their initial shock experience.
The study findings will be published in the September issue of
Katkin told Reuters Health that while the association between
accurate gut feelings and subconsciously registered stimuli may
ultimately involve other additional influences, the connection
appeared to be clear and substantial.
“We may consciously forget certain
past experiences, but our bodies have a more lasting memory than
our consciousness does and we respond to these experiences with
these gut feelings,” he said.
“And there are individual
differences in how sensitive people are, so that those who are
more in tune with their bodies are more likely to have these gut
However, Katkin cautioned that the
findings should not be viewed as proof that all intuitions, feelings
or hunches have solid foundations.
“There are lots of people who are
having inaccurate hunches all the time, and I can’t address
that,” he said. “I don’t know why they do.”