Q: Alex in Union Square asks “Why do so many people live in New York when it’s crowded, noisy, and people are always in a rush?”
A:It’s easy to see why someone visiting New York City for the first time would harbor negative feelings. Of course, Alex may be right in some ways. New York City is dense. That cannot be argued. There are innumerable people crowding Soho streets on the weekends and Times Square always. And yes, sirens and laughs can be heard from every side of the street until all hours of the night. Alex, however, is also falling into a cognitive trap. And he’s not the only one. Outsiders are trained to believe that that our city possesses those aforementioned negative qualities as well.
One only has to turn on a television for a brief moment to observe New York City stereotypes — we’re rude, people say. We’re always in a hurry, other shows reverberate. So, when it’s time to visit our great city, people have it in their minds that the city will treat them a certain way, and subsequently find reasons to confirm these beliefs. In effect, these people are demonstrating something called a confirmation bias. This psychological phenomenon suggests that we seek out information that will confirm our present ideas. For instance, if you have it in your mind that New Yorkers are rude, you might search for examples that reaffirm this. Maybe you’re sure the cashier at the grocery store gave you nasty stare when perhaps she was merely blinking. The confirmation bias helps people make sense of social information. It feels validating to confirm your thoughts, so people interpret information in a certain light to make certain this happens.
If only Alex could have opened his eyes and not relied on a cognitive distortion to form an opinion, he would have seen that though it’s noisy and crowded on Broadway, if you walk one street west or east, you can find yourself on a still-moving street and seek solace. And though people are rushing to get to their next destination, most of the time it’s because that next place is amazing. There is so much to do in this city and it only makes sense to do as much as one can to maximize the day. A confirmation bias will stick out in your mind in a way that the nice city dweller that stopped to give you directions won’t. One way to combat this bias is to examine situations critically before making hasty judgments. It’s important to be cautious of these biases or you may miss out on the city’s magic.
As fall approaches and city inhabitants return from their summer vacations, the city’s buzz is palpable. Last week a friend of mine was laid off. To make herself feel better she walked outside to hail a cab to the nearest 16 Handles. It started to pour rain and taxis were impossible to find. To make things easier she and a woman standing next to her on the street, also attempting to flag a cab, decided to share a ride to their mutual destination. Though they were nothing more than street-mates and strangers, the two hit it off as the rain beat against the glass windows. It turns out, the stranger was hiring for her local media company and hired my friend on the spot. Sure, Alex, New York may be crowed, noisy, and rushed, but give it a chance, and New York also evokes magic, a little bit of luck, and a lot of opportunity.
Kristine Keller received her Master’s in psychology from New York University.
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