Big Data shows “city folk” are more selfish

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Big Data strikes again — this time by scientifically proving “city folk” are actually more self-centered.

Researchers at UCLA used the Google Books Ngram Viewer to analyze word frequencies in thousands of literary works published in the past 200 years. By scanning large amounts of data, they proved that urbanization has actually made people more selfish.

The study, recently published in Psychological Science titled “The Changing Psychology of Culture from 1800 through 2000,” charted changes in written language over time. They found that as people moved to cities from rural areas, word frequencies moved in predictable ways.

As individuals adapted to urban life, their values became progressively more individualistic and materialistic; these urban values prioritized choice, personal possessions, and child-centered socialization as part of psychological development.

“When you have greater wealth, you have more choices,” UCLA researcher Patricia Greenfield told  There are more things to do and places to spend money. Personal choice — with the emphasis on the individual — is a central theme in an urban world.

“It’s really not just urbanization,” Greenfield said. “It’s all the things that go with urbanization, too.”

For example, the frequency of the word “give” dropped considerably in two centuries, mirrored by a spike in the use of the word “get.” “Obliged” and “duty” had a similar movement over time.

Greenfield tested several synonyms and British books to show she wasn’t cherry picking her data. Both the U.S. and Great Britain had the same patterns of increasing selfishness.

The findings confirmed a prevailing belief that environmental changes had a significant impact on social change and human progress.  



Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.