Have you ever wondered why the length of an audience’s applause after, say, a musical concert or theatrical production often seems be unconnected to the quality of the performance?
Well, a recent study suggests an explanation. Clapping, like many other group behaviors, appears to be contagious.
For the study, mathematician Richard Mann of Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues videotaped groups of 13 to 20 undergraduate students (107 in all) as they watched someone make a seven-minute PowerPoint presentation on a scientific topic.
Neither the students nor the six PowerPoint presenters were aware that their applause was being evaluated in the study. Instead, the students were told to observe the actions and body language of the presenters. They were also instructed to applaud when the talks ended because the presenters were all volunteers.
Mann and his colleagues then timed the clapping of each participant. (All but three of the students clapped at the end of the talks.) The researchers also noted when the clapping started and when it ended. This data was then fed into several mathematical models.
A social pressure point
The models showed that the probability of an individual starting to clap increased in proportion to the number of other audience members who were already clapping.
The greater the number of people who clapped, the greater the pressure others felt to join in.
Surprisingly, whether or not a nearby person was clapping was not as significant in terms of getting an individual to participate as the overall number of people applauding.
Social pressure also determined the end of the applause, although to a slightly lesser degree. As soon as one or two people stopped clapping, the rest soon followed suit.
“The social contagion model arising from our analysis predicts that the time the audience spends clapping can vary considerably, even in the absence of any differences in the quality of the presentations they have heard,” Mann and his colleagues conclude.
The researchers did find, however, that some individuals were less willing than others to follow the crowd, both in regards to starting and stopping their applause.
So why are these findings interesting? They suggest, according to Mann and his colleagues, that mathematical models of social contagion patterns could be used to better understand — and even predict — a wide range of group behaviors.
“Just like we measure how influenza is spreading each year, we can also measure and predict how social unrest or new fashions might spread,” Mann told a reporter for the French global news agency AFP News. “Consider, for example, a new fashion for unhealthy binge drinking. If we can measure and predict the spread of this behavior, we can make preparations for policing and health care ahead of time.”