Stimulus Overload in the City

“I guess living in the city has gotten to me” my friend jokingly replied after asking her if everything was okay.  She was visiting for the weekend and we spent the day in D.C.  I observed that she was slightly aloof in response to strangers (for example, greetings from store employees or servers at restaurants).  While I initially perceived this as a bit standoffish, I realized that I may have been overlooking that her usual environment is vastly different from mine.  I live in the suburbs of Northern Virginia right outside of D.C., while she has recently adjusted to living in downtown Richmond for the past year.

There are many stressors that exist in a city:  high population density, crowding, excessive noise, crime, high costs of living, and traffic.  It’s plausible to think that these factors can take some sort of psychological toll on individuals that inhabit these areas.  It’s also important to note that others thrive in that environment and may not be bothered.  Regardless, there is a psychological concept that details how people react to urban life, known as stimulus overload.  Stanley Milgram (1970) used this term to describe that our nervous system can become overwhelmed from the environmental information that is bombarding our senses.  This inhibits our ability to respond to everything around us so we have to adapt to the situation by setting priorities and using selective attention (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).  By simplifying how we react to the environment, we have to limit what we respond to (unconsciously or not), and this is known as psychologically retreating (Schneider et al., 2012).  Milgram (1970) furthered his concept of stimulus overload and proposed six types of psychological retreat:

  1. We rush through social situations and perceived obstacles (Schneider et al., 2012)
  2. Attention is prioritized, and things of low importance may be avoided altogether (Schneider et al., 2012)
  3. We set up structures that take the personal element out of our transactions (Schneider et al., 2012)
  4. We establish barriers from certain forms of social interaction on a daily basis (Schneider et al., 2012)
  5. We use filters (Schneider et al., 2012)
  6. We create specialized agencies to deal with particular issues (Schneider et al., 2012)

Schneider et. al (2012) summarized these perfectly: “Collectively, these adaptations to the overload that characterize life in the city contribute to the distinctive nature of the behavior of city dwellers, which is often regarded as hurried and somewhat callous toward others” (p. 280).  In hindsight, now that I understand the reactions to stimulus overload in an urban area, the behavior of my friend made more sense.


Korte, C. (1980). Urban–nonurban differences in social behavior and social psychological models of urban impact. Journal of Social Issues, 36(3), 29-51. doi:

Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, 167, 1461-1468.

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012).  Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

1 comment

  1. Cities can be very stressful if someone is not used to the environment. There are lots of people in cities and the traffic is usually congested. The usual environment for someone from a city is fast paced. The stimulus from cities could definitely at times be overwhelming. In this case it would benefit an individual to focus and meditate when they feel overwhelmed.

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