When entering an unfamiliar neighborhood, adaptive social decisions are dependent on an accurate assessment of the local safety. Studies of cities have shown that the maintenance of physical structures is correlated with the strength of ties between neighbors, which in turn is responsible for the crime level. Thus it should be theoretically possible to intuit neighborhood safety through the physical structures alone. Here we test whether people have this capacity for judging urban neighborhoods with 3 studies in which individuals observed photographs of unfamiliar neighborhoods in Binghamton, New York. Each study was facilitated by data collected during previous studies performed by the Binghamton Neighbor- hood Project studies. In the 1st study, observer ratings on neighborhood social quality agreed highly with reports by those living there. In the 2nd, a separate sample of participants played an economic game with adolescent residents from pictured neighborhoods. Players exhibited a lower level of trust toward adolescents from neighborhoods whose residents report lesser social quality. In the 3rd study, the maintenance of physical structures and the presence of businesses explained nearly all variation between neighborhoods in observer ratings (89%), whereas the specific features influencing play in Study 2 remained inconclusive. These and other results suggest that people use the general upkeep of physical structures when making wholesale judgments of neighborhoods, reflecting a adaptation for group living that has strong implications for the role of upkeep in urban environments.
Keywords: urban social behavior, prosociality, evolutionary psychology, disorder theory, environment perception