The study of social identity and crowd psychology looks at how and why individual people change their behaviour in response to others. Within a group, a new behaviour can emerge first in a few individuals before it spreads rapidly to all other members. A number of mathematical models have been hypothesized to describe these social contagion phenomena, but these models remain largely untested against empirical data. We used Bayesian model selection to test between various hypotheses about the spread of a simple social behaviour, applause after an academic presentation. 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 cessation of applause is similarly socially mediated, but is to a lesser degree controlled by the reluctance of individuals to clap too many times. We also found consistent differences between individuals in their willingness to start and stop clapping. 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.
- Received May 22, 2013.
- Accepted May 29, 2013.
© 2013 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.