Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The "science" behind the stereotype

I came across an article published on Monday that suggests that people who live in urban areas are more easily stressed out than those that live in rural areas. While the article concludes innocently enough (talking about ways in which people can combat stress symptoms), I couldn’t help but wonder if the claim was actually based off of scientific evidence or mere stereotype.

The article claims that “Several scientists studied the brain using MRI images. These images seemed to indicate that city life might actually change the brain.” This statement didn’t seem particularly convincing to me, so I decided to investigate a little bit further. Indeed, the Economist points out that there was such a study done, but the results are inconclusive at best.

The Economist article takes for granted the results of a Dutch study that supposedly shows that “city dwellers have a 21% higher risk of developing anxiety disorders than do their calmer rural countrymen, and a 39% higher risk of developing mood disorders” ( I couldn’t find more information about this Dutch study, but given the difficulty in defining rural vs. urban and the fact that the dynamic between urban and rural livelihoods in the Netherlands is likely different than it is in the United States, I take that information with a grain of salt). It then goes on to suggest a plausible reason as to why this is the case: urban and rural brains behave differently!

Urban and rural people had different reactions in two different regions of the brain that indicated higher levels of activity amongst urbanites when placed in the same stressful situation as rural dwellers. The only problems with the study are that “the sample size was small”, “the result showed an association, rather than a definite, causal relationship”, and the doctor who conducted the study “is careful not to claim that his results show the cause of this connection.”

The inconclusive nature of the study gives some merit to my intuitive reaction that this type of study might just be a way of trying to “prove” a stereotype that cannot be proven. We have already discussed how different each rural setting is and the stresses and challenges are unique in different areas. I would think that it would be nearly impossible to realistically carry out a statistically significant study because it would need to test so many different people from so many different areas to hope to reach any meaningful general conclusions.

This article points out other issues with the study, noting that it leaves out suburbia and “raises more questions than it answers.” The bottom-line is that when we start attaching “science” to stereotypical representations, the stereotype can become further perpetuated and engrained in society, which can result in great harms. Before publishing inconclusive scientific results like this, I would hope that people would think about the effect they may have on public perception.


ScottA. said...

I would have expected more from the Economist, but I guess everyone has to sell magazines (or online articles).

Besides the limited number of subjects,there is also the problem of people not wanting to openly discuss their mental health problems. This applies to urban and rural people, but I think that it goes more to rural culture not to openly air your dirty laundry.

I also wonder if limited access to health care professionals in rural areas tinge this study. True there is a very small sample size, but I think it would be very hard to contact people about sharing their issues when they don't have access to psychologists or therapists. These professionals encourage an open discussion about issues, and not having any exposure to them may keep rural people from sharing with researchers such taboo subjects.

JT said...

I agree with ScottA that access to healthcare might factor into the study results. That is, it's quite possible those in rural areas requiring more treatment for health issues that are stress-related would move into the urban areas in order to treat the ailments.

At the same time, I see the merit in conducting the study. In an urban setting there are increased stimulation and distractions in the form of technology, media, and even increased population. The article, whether conclusive or not, presents an interesting issue of potential lifestyle differences and its effects in urban and rural spaces.

Patricija said...

As long as we're using stereotypes as scientific proof, what about the "fact" that rural folks are more private? Perhaps they are just as stressed, especially if they are in areas of persistent poverty, but do not feel comfortable sharing their stress. As Joe Bageant (writer of Deer Hunting with Jesus) points out, white working class in particular (and white working class males especially) have a great deal of pride of not taking handouts and not burdening others. They also have a healthy dose of skepticism and dislike of "intellectual elites," a category mental healthy professionals are likely to be classified as.