June 21, 2013 12:00 pm
The curtain closes, and everyone around you starts clapping. You’re clapping too, and as you do, you realize that you’re not really sure why. The show wasn’t that good. You’re probably going to complain about it later—about how the acting was dull or how the singer was off or how that stupid third grader totally forgot half his lines. But you’re clapping anyway – and a recent study showed that you’re not alone. The majority of clapping has to do with the audience around you, not how much you enjoyed the show.
Individuals’ probability of starting clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already ‘infected’ by this social contagion, regardless of their spatial proximity.
The researchers report that “while the majority of clapping bouts involve only 9-15 claps per person, some bouts can last over 30 claps.” (A Martian anthropologist, reading this paper, could be forgiven for thinking applause were a communicative disease with symptoms causing individuals to “strike a part of their body with one of their hands in a repetitive manner.”) Again, we’re told, “unusually strong or weak levels of appreciation” have less to do with the content of the performance than with the influence of random individuals, since “groups … coordinate the cessation of clapping” by following the lead of one or two first-stoppers. And what’s motivating the first-stoppers? Well, nobody wants to be That Guy Who Applauds Too Long. First-stoppers are just the ones who define “too long” most cautiously.
So, for example, if half of the audience is clapping, you’re 10 times more likely to catch the clap than if just five percent of the audience is clapping. And you don’t even need to see anybody doing it, just the sound of applause makes people begin to clap. Basically, clapping is more like a disease than a reward, speeding amongst the crowd whether they like it or not.
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