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Applause spreads like “disease”

June 20, 2013
Courtesy of the Royal Society
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers have found that ap­plause spreads like a “dis­ease” though an au­di­ence, with ap­plause dura­t­ion of­ten un­con­nect­ed to the qual­ity of the per­for­mance.

Sci­en­tists in­ves­t­i­gated how ap­plause starts and stops, to test the­o­ries of how be­hav­iors spread so­cially. They found that in­di­vid­u­als seem to pick up the clap­ping “in­fec­tion” by hear­ing the vol­ume of ap­plause, rath­er than di­rectly see­ing their neigh­bors clap­ping. 

Pre­dictably enough, the group will only stop af­ter at least one per­son de­cides alone that they’ve clapped for long enough. But the vari­abil­ity in this in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sion means the ap­plause dura­t­ion is of­ten di­vorced from the qual­ity of the per­for­mance, the study found.

The find­ings were de­scribed June 19 in the Jour­nal of the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty In­ter­face.

Lead re­search­er Rich­ard Mann and col­leagues from Upp­sa­la Uni­vers­ity in Swe­den filmed the re­sponse of six dif­fer­ent groups of 13 to 20 uni­vers­ity stu­dents to two dif­fer­ent oral pre­s­enta­t­ions. They found that an in­di­vid­u­al’s prob­a­bil­ity of start­ing clap­ping in­creased in pro­por­tion to the num­ber of oth­er au­di­ence mem­bers al­ready “in­fect­ed,” re­gard­less of their proxim­ity.

Ap­plause cessa­t­ion is si­m­i­larly “so­cially me­di­at­ed,” the re­search­ers said, but is to a less­er de­gree con­trolled by the re­luc­tance of in­di­vid­u­als to clap too many times. They al­so found con­sist­ent dif­fer­ences be­tween in­di­vid­u­als in their will­ing­ness to start and stop clap­ping.


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Researchers have found that applause spreads like a “disease” though an audience, with applause duration often unconnected to the quality of the performance. Scientists investigated how applause starts and stops, to test theories of how behaviors spread socially. They found that individuals seem to pick up the clapping “infection” by hearing the volume of applause, rather than directly seeing their neighbors clapping. Predictably enough, the group will only stop after at least one person decides alone that they’ve clapped for long enough. But the variability in this individual decision means the applause duration is often divorced from the quality of the performance, the study found. The findings were described June 19 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Lead researcher Richard Mann and colleagues from Uppsala University in Sweden filmed the response of six different groups of 13 to 20 university students to two different oral presentations. They found that an individuals’ probability of starting clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already “infected,” regardless of their spatial proximity. Applause cessation is similarly “socially mediated,” the researchers said, but is to a lesser degree controlled by the reluctance of individuals to clap too many times. They also found consistent differences between individuals in their willingness to start and stop clapping.