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.
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.”
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
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.