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Diffusion of Applause as Social Contagion

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 27, 2013

Scientists are developing some new clues about how memes spread. It seems applause spreads through an audience like a communicable disease, and duration is not necessarily based on enthusiasm for a performance.

A team of mathematicians and biologists from Sweden and Germany studied audience applause in order to quantify the role of social contagion in the age-old practice of clapping-how it starts and stops, and how long it lasts. In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, mathematician Richard P. Mann of Uppsala University in Sweden, and colleagues explained that in an audience of "susceptible” people each individual clap provides a time point in which he or she remains "infected” by appreciation, and cessation of clapping denotes "recovery.”

The experiments took place at the University of Leeds. A total of 107 participants were divided into six groups of 20 or fewer. Each group was randomly assigned to attend lectures by two different presenters who each gave seven minute oral reports using PowerPoint. Participants were told to applaud after each session, because the presenters were volunteering. They were also told to observe and record presenters’ body language so they would be less likely to think about their clapping.

Both the start and stop of clapping followed a sigmoidal growth and decay pattern. Researchers reported that an initial slow uptake of new clapping behavior was followed by a rapid phase of change, and eventual cessation. They developed several mathematical models and equations that might explain the clapping behavior. Are local neighbors or audiences majorities most important in spreading memes? Is there a tipping point at which a phenomenon takes off after reaching critical mass?

They found that hearing the overall volume of the applause influenced participants more than whatever their nearby neighbors were doing. As in the infectious disease model, and unlike models based on a tipping point, observed clapping by participants increased in linear fashion along with the proportion of people already clapping. Even before everyone had started clapping, some had already stopped. Cessation of clapping is "socially mediated,” the scientists said, but is also influenced by a general reluctance of people to clap for too long. Duration varied widely even among audiences that rated the same presentation equally.

Researchers believe their findings may help understand other cultural phenomena and collective behavior, such as the rate at which people leave social networks and online groups. Read their paper here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  diffusion 

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