Clap On, Clap Off

ApplauseAs social creatures, we are easily influenced by others, even when we express our appreciation or dissatisfaction through applause.

In fact, it’s amazing how easily a group of strangers can be swayed. I’ve tried the following informal experiment at five different movie theaters. At the end of each movie, I paused for five seconds, then began clapping loudly and continuously. Invariably, others joined in the applause, which swelled to include at least half of the audience. At five other movie screenings, I waited five seconds, then five more. In fact, I never began clapping, even though at three movies, I really wanted to. The result? No one clapped.

Was my little experiment just a fluke or are we more susceptible to “group think”, I mean, “group clapping” than we care to admit? Here’s what reporter Amy Kraft for Scientific American discovered about the phenomenon:

Applause is a sign of appreciation after a good performance. Right? Actually, a new study finds that how enthusiastically you clap can be strongly influenced by the volume and frequency of the audience clapping around you.

To test how applauding behavior spreads in groups, researchers filmed six different sets of university students who were told to clap after listening to an academic lecture.

The videos showed that people were strongly swayed by other audience members, or even by just one particularly influential clapper. Applause incidents averaged 9-15 claps per person, but would swell to as many as 30 claps solely based on an individual applause leader. The spasm stopped in much the same way: when one person ceased clapping it triggered a larger group dynamic.

The study is in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and is part of a larger effort to understand social behavior and how it can spread within a group. [Richard P. Mann et al., The dynamics of audience applause]

So the next time you see a dull performance, remember, the desire to hold back on clapping might be out of your hands.

Well put, Amy. That deserves a round of…. oops! I’ll just sit on my hands.