The urban overload hypothesis was first described by social psychologists Stanley Milgram to explain why people in cities help less than people in small towns. Learn about overload, how people in cities try to compensate for overload, and more.


Suppose that you were walking down the street in a city. You hear a scream coming from behind you. You turn around and see a woman collapse on the ground. Though there is no blood or any obvious injury that you can spot, the woman grabs her side as if her ribs are injured. How would you respond in this scenario?

According to social psychologist Stanley Milgram in his article titled ‘The Experience of Living in Cities’, your response to this situation is heavily dependent upon whether you live in a city or a small town. If you live in a small town, you would likely stop and offer help to the woman. City-dwellers, on the other hand, are more likely to walk by and ignore the woman’s pleas.

Why does living in a city make it more likely for you to help less? Milgram explained this phenomenon by developing the urban overload hypothesis. People who live in cities are constantly being exposed to a large amount of stimuli. There are so many stimuli in the city environment that it often becomes too much for a person to process at once.

As a result of being bombarded with stimuli, we experience overload and must adapt to these demands. We set priorities that involve choosing which stimuli to process while choosing others to ignore. One consequence of this adaptation includes not getting involved in situations where someone may be injured and need help.

The city-dweller’s lack of response to the woman is not due to the city-dweller being cold or evil. Nor is it due to a person in a small town being more altruistic. It is merely an attempt for the city-dweller to keep from being overwhelmed by the stimuli in their environment.

Urban Overload: Fact of Fiction?

There are many people who do not agree with the urban overload hypothesis. However, examples can be found both in research and in real life that support the urban overload hypothesis.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City while at least 38 bystanders watched. No one called for help until Kitty was dead.

Harold Takooshian, Sandra Haber, and David Lucido conducted an experiment in 1977, in which they had a child between 6 and 10 years of age walk up to a stranger and pretend to be lost. Researchers found that 72 percent of the people who lived in a small town offered to help the child. Only 46 percent of people who lived in a city offered the child assistance.

Lesson Summary

The urban overload hypothesis was created by Stanley Milgram in 1970. Milgram hypothesized that people who live in cities are constantly being subjected to stimuli in their environment. In order to cope, people who live in cities have to learn how to block some things out. As a result, people who live in cities are less likely to help someone in need than people who live in small towns. Examples of the urban overload hypothesis can be found in real life and in research.

Key Terms

  • Stanley Milgram: social psychologist who wrote ‘The Experience of Living in Cities’
  • urban overload hypothesis: phenomenon explained by Stanley Milgram that people who live in cities are constantly being exposed to a large amount of stimuli and find it difficult to process at once

Learning Outcomes

After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to

  • Define urban overload hypothesis
  • Explain why people are less likely to assist others in cities rather than small towns
  • Cite examples that support the urban overload hypothesis