I have got a strange habit of looking into people's eyes, no matter whether they are complete strangers to me or my acquaintances. Because I believe the pair of eyes you look into is actually the door to their minds.
And I see a creepy flair of violent mindset brewing inside the tiny boy who begs for alms along with his mother (or the mother hired by the child-begging syndicate), the rickshaw puller who swoops down on another puller at the slightest instigation, the biker who sets his vehicle on fire to vent out his pent-up frustration and the car owner who beats anyone who mistakenly puts a scratch on his/her vehicle while commuting.
Interestingly, people making a fuss over silly reasons and adding fuel to the fire to turn a trifling misunderstanding into a scuffle is turning into an everyday affair in this capital. I see this kind of altercation now and then while making my way to and back from the office. This kind of outburst instantiates a change in people's mentality and points to the dominance of violence (both psychological and physical).
Now, do you find any connection between the violent attitude of the urban population and an overcrowded city (Dhaka or other major cities)? Finding it quite irrelevant and far-fetched? If so, then the experiment known as 'Universe 25' and its findings may make it easy for you to get your head around it.
A seminal experiment was conducted on rodents back in 1968 (continued till 1973) by Calhoun, an American ethologist and behavioural researcher renowned for his studies of population density and its knock-on impacts on behavioural patterns. He designed a pen, a small area surrounded by a fence, where he left behind four mouse couples along with abundant nesting supplies, unlimited food and water.
There was no scarcity - the only scarce thing was physical space. Well, it was just a matter of time before their coexistence ended in violence and harmony turned into acrimony as the space gradually started decreasing with the increasing mouse population.
When the population increased and the space seemed to be not enough for all, the rodents started exhibiting aberrant behaviour, which Calhoun defined as a 'behavioural sink.' This breakdown of social order was an outcome of overcrowded population density situations. Calhoun later anthropomorphised his findings. We can also relate those findings to the urban population just to put our fingers on what's wrong with the psyche of city dwellers.
Dhaka is reportedly the sixth most populous city in the world with a population of around 1,02,78,882 (as revealed in the Population and Housing Census-2022 report carried out just a few months ago). According to information by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), around 39.35 thousand people live per square kilometre in the South whereas the rate is 30.47 thousand in the North City Corporation of Dhaka.
Now, if we connect this rising population density with the behavioural pattern of city dwellers, we can easily perceive the abnormal changes underway on the down low. As mentioned earlier, people in the capital are growing to be more violent. It will be easier for you to agree with this point if you just take a look back at the time when the pandemic broke out.
With the onset of the pandemic, different NGOs started receiving an increasing number of distress calls, insinuating that domestic violence against women just went through the roof when people were confined within the walls of their homes. Interestingly, when all family members have to stay together inside a flat, it also gets overpopulated.
According to BRAC, there was a nearly 70% increase in reported incidents of violence against women in March and April 2020. This kind of sudden surge makes it all the more evident that the shades of violence are simmering inside the minds of the urban population.
Another finding was that rodents began neglecting their peers and pups. This is also happening in Dhaka. Just look at the family structure – joint families are very rare nowadays in the capital. More and more joint families are breaking down to form nuclear families because people are finding it difficult to engage in complex social relationships that they have to maintain while living in a joint family.
The most alarming impact was that mice born into this chaos failed to form social bonds or develop normal social behaviours. With the number of playgrounds and open spaces shrinking in the capital, our children are already exhibiting abnormal behavioural patterns. Just for example – children spending more time on the screen instead of playing outdoors and partaking in fireside chats with peers and other family members is an indication of how our progenies are failing to engage in complex social behaviours.
Psychological changes are slow, silent, and take years to fully show signs. To what extent the detrimental effects of population density will affect our children will be more obvious only with the passage of time.
Last but not least, even when the rodents were then freed at the end of this experiment and exposed to a normal environment, they were not able to survive and show normal behaviour as it was too late for them to reverse the psychological changes the mice went through during the experiment. If I again relate this fate to us who are living in this mega city, are we also destined to face such a nemesis? Are the urban population sailing into oblivion with every passing day as we grow to be more violent and inconsiderate day by day? Only time will tell.
Md Morshedul Alam Mohabat is a columnist who likes to delve deeper into the human psyche with a view to exploring the factors that influence it.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.