Applause Is Contagious, Spreads Like An Infection
June 19, 2013

Clapping Is Apparently Contagious, Spreads Like An Infection

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

A new study from Sweden's Uppsala University has scientifically confirmed what we´ve already known for hundreds of years: applause is contagious.

For entertainers and performers, clapping is seen as a sign of appreciation, as a way for audiences to thank them for a job well done and let them know their work is appreciated. While this is understood by all, it´s accepted that some clapping, if not most, is either done out of courtesy to the performer or because it´s what an audience does following a show.

Dr. Richard Mann of Uppsala University claims much of this applause is generated by peer pressure; when one person starts clapping, the rest will follow. Alternatively, it doesn´t take too long for the applause to die down once the first person decides they´ve done enough clapping their hands together.

Dr. Mann´s study is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

“As individuals, we don´t want to be the only ones clapping, nor do we want to clap alone. It is a very instinctive form of peer pressure, it is incredibly powerful,” said Dr. Mann in an interview with the Daily Mail's Nick McDermott.

To conduct his mathematic and scientific experiment, Dr. Mann and his team recruited a group of 107 students, split them up into six groups, and asked them to watch two PowerPoint presentations detailing the findings of a biological study. With video cameras rolling, Dr. Mann´s team captured a chain reaction of applause after one planted student in each group began to clap following the presentation. Neither the presenter nor the other students knew their applause was being monitored. Dr. Mann then took this data and broke it into mathematical models and what he found was not surprising.

"People in the audience didn't make an independent choice about how good the talk was and then clap an appropriate number of times,” said Dr. Mann in an email to the AFP.

"Instead, they responded very predictably to the social pressure around them, which we believe they felt through the volume of clapping in the room. Likewise, once people began to stop clapping there was increasing pressure for everyone to stop."

It only took about three seconds for the applause to die down in each of their tests, another chain reaction which the researcher claims is often begun by one brave person who either becomes bored or tired.

“We found boredom or tiredness is the main trigger for an individual to stop clapping, and once this happens, the rest of the crowd soon follow,” said Dr. Mann. His results also found that once five to 15 percent of people in the audience stopped clapping, the rest were soon to follow.

Dr. Mann also believes this study could be used to further explain peer pressure and why humans feel compelled to do what those around them are doing.

"Here we tested whether you are more driven by the total number of people in the room or the people sitting next to you,” said Dr. Mann in an interview with the BBC's Rebecca Morelle.

"And the equivalent on Facebook or Twitter would be whether you are more likely to join in a trend if you see lots of people in the wider world mentioning it or if just your closer friends mention it."

As for performers, Dr. Mann has some advice for those who may use applause and standing ovations as a gauge of their performance:

“You should be wary of encores - often people just keep on clapping as long as everyone else is. On the plus side, performers can take comfort from this if they get a short round of applause.”