North side story

East side, west side — who cares? People want to live on the north side:

Most people, knowing nothing else about a city, would rather live in the northern half of town than in the southern, says Brian Meier, associate professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. People tend to see the north as more desirable and affluent, in turn fueling stereotypes about where the rich and the poor live.

“For some reason, people see the north and south as very different,” Prof. Meier says. “When all else is equal, people have this bias to think that northerly areas are better or more affluent.”

Where does this location bias come from? Think “up” and “down”:

Although north and south are abstract concepts, we tend to understand them in spatial terms, with north meaning up and south meaning down. We then take it a step further and tie the two words to emotion, where up means good and down means bad — “feeling up or feeling down, on cloud nine or down in the dumps,” [Meier] explains. Pop culture furthers this idea; think of Billy Joel’s 1983 song about a blue-collar “downtown man” in love with a high-class “uptown girl.”

At some point, this directional metaphor becomes so ingrained in our minds that we can’t separate metaphor from concept, and north becomes good, and south becomes bad.

Gerardus Mercator never heard Billy Joel, but his map projection from the sixteenth century has the effect of making the northern hemisphere look more important than the southern, simply because far northern zones contain more actual land than far southern zones, and the projection exaggerates that disparity. (Greenland, for instance, appears to be larger than Africa, which is actually about 14 times the size of Greenland.)

Tulsans will happily point out that their south side is fine, thank you very much, but this is most likely a residual effect of Jim Crow.

(Via this Costa Tsiokos tweet.)


  1. Roger Green »

    7 July 2013 · 3:18 pm

    A while back, I was thinking about north and south:

  2. CGHill »

    7 July 2013 · 3:41 pm

    You know, if we just read each other, we could probably accumulate a Britannica‘s worth of reference material in the next quarter-century or so.

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