In the moments following the Boston Marathon explosions, amid the general confusion and uncertainty, one thing emerged with overwhelming clarity: People were rushing to the aid of strangers. Runners and spectators donated blood, volunteers helped the wounded reach medical assistance, families opened up their homes to anyone who needed a place to stay. It was as if, galvanized by a single moment, differences and rivalries had vanished. Everyone in the city suddenly saw one another as part of the same group.
That sentiment spread quickly. Within hours, it wasn’t just local to Boston; all over the world, people proclaimed themselves at one with the city. New Yorkers lined up in Red Sox caps. A photographer in Afghanistan snapped photos of locals holding signs that read “To Boston, from Kabul, with love.” In Chicago, more than 200 runners gathered for an impromptu run of solidarity. Baseball stadiums around the country blasted “Sweet Caroline” and the theme to “Cheers.”
What inspired them? Why were people who had before hardly given one another a second thought suddenly calling themselves part of a single, Bostonian tribe, irrespective of geography, ideology, past allegiances? After all, this portrait of Boston as a globe-spanning tribe looking after its own ran directly in the face of a longstanding reputation of cities as anonymous, disconnected places. To take one example from psychological literature, in 1970 Stanley Milgram, fresh from his research into the perils of obedience, lamented that urban environments were “deform[ing] daily life” and necessarily restricting “moral and social involvement with individuals.” His was just one of many accounts to echo the perils of social isolation and crowd hysteria, both supposedly inherent in city life. Bystander effects, diffusion of responsibility, mass panic: Over the next forty-odd years, the negative psychology terms would pile on and on.
But these experts were missing something. Over and over in times of crisis, as in Boston this past week, we have seen the exact opposite patterns. We don’t see unmitigated chaos or profound isolation. We see instead spontaneous bonds between individuals who, moments earlier, barely knew one another existed. We see strangers bucking the survival instinct to run into the fray, in order to help. We see people putting themselves at risk, not for family members, but for unknown faces.
Psychologist John Drury puts it thus: “collective behaviour in emergencies is more typically characterized by sociality (such as mutual aid, orderliness, and courtesy) than by individualized competition.” This dynamic asserts itself time and time again. When British researchers interviewed survivors and witnesses of the July 7, 2005, London bombings, where a series of four explosions killed 56 people and injured over 700, they found that all but one of the interviewees professed a feeling of deep togetherness and described patterns of remarkable mutual aid. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, researchers found much the same thing.
What Milgram neglected to note about cities is that they offer us something in direct opposition to their supposed isolating qualities: an identity.
What we are doing, in these times of crisis, is reorganizing our sense of who we are: not Jews or Christians or Muslims, or men or women, or writers or accountants, but simply, say, Bostonians. This process, the spontaneous birth of social bonds among strangers arising from shared experience—and, clearly, shared geography—is known in psychology as mass emergent sociality. In the face of extreme circumstances, we recategorize ourselves. Our personal sense of self recedes, and instead, a new, collective sense of who we are rises to the fore.
What Milgram neglected to note about cities is that they offer us something in direct opposition to their supposed isolating qualities: an identity. They are a way of coming together that helps define us, no matter where we came from or where we are heading. Cities breed feelings of identification in a way that smaller units (neighborhoods, districts) typically do not; in fact, most people rank city second only to country when describing what entity, for them, evokes the greatest feelings of attachment. And greater Boston, a metropolitan area not only of diehard locals but of immigrants and students and people who come for jobs in health care or technology, has an unusual number of people attached to it.
I speak from experience. I grew up in Acton, Mass., as a Russian-Jewish immigrant who, at first, spoke not a word of English. I never identified with my community; it was too different from who I was and what I knew. But from the first, I was drawn to Boston. Almost every weekend, my mom would take us to the city. There, amid the bustle of ethnic restaurants and the sounds of accents and languages I couldn’t understand, I fit in. I would never call myself an Actonian, but calling myself a Bostonian came easily—and still does, even after almost 10 years in New York. My city is a part of who I am.
Cities both celebrate and erase difference. Cities are inclusive. They transcend the individual. And in so doing, they make all those strangers part of ourselves, of our own identity, our own self-category. And so we give blood, or open our homes, or race to get the wounded to the hospital. We aren’t being selfless. We are merely extending the concept of self in a way that the city makes natural. In moments of tragedy, we refuse both isolation and chaos. Instead, we put our identity as city dwellers—in this case, as Bostonians—first, and draw strength from a shared sense of self that we may not even have guessed existed.
Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” and writes the Literally Psyched blog for Scientific American.