Urban regulatory focus: A new concept linking city size to human behaviour

Guy M. Ross*, Juval Portugali

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Why do people in big cities behave differently to those living in small cities? To answer this question, in this paper a new concept of urban dynamics is presented that links city size to human behaviour. The concept has its origins in regulatory focus theory. According to the theory, goal-directed behaviour is regulated by two motivational systems, promotion and prevention. Individuals motivated by promotion goals (growth, accomplishment) focus on winning and tend to take risks, whereas those driven by prevention goals (safety, security) focus on not losing and try to avoid risk. Here we elaborate on the existing literature by linking the theory to the urban context. In our conceptualization, cities are powerful regulatory systems, and as such they impinge upon the way people regulate themselves in the urban space. Evidence from signal detection analysis is provided that supports this concept. The experience of a big-city context intensified both promotion-focused behaviour (a risky bias) for promotion-focused participants and prevention-focused behaviour (a conservative bias) for prevention-focused participants. The experience of a small-city context encouraged the opposite behavioural pattern in both cases. These findings suggest that the urban environment can influence the regulatory focus strategies of an individual in a way that cannot simply be explained by their personal regulatory focus. Specifically, the likelihood of one’s behaving in a promotion- or prevention-oriented manner is dependent both on one’s chronic regulatory focus and also on the urban context in which one lives. Based on this, we maintain that vibrant cities with a large population and a fast pace of life encourage extreme and polarized behaviours, whereas cities with a smaller population and a slower pace of life encourage more moderate and less polarized behavioural responses, which may explain why people in big cities take more risks, do more business, produce and spend more, and even walk faster.

Original languageEnglish
Article number171478
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - 23 May 2018


  • Cities
  • Prevention
  • Promotion


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