Why Applause is Contagious

Email a Friend

The quality of a performance doesn't correlate with the amount of applause it receives, reports a Swedish study. Instead, the process of clapping appears to be contagious, with the length of applause determined by how other audience members behave.

Anyone who has attended enough classical concerts may hardly find this a revelation. But the study does provide some scientific models for the vast amount of empirical evidence. The researchers, led by Richard P. Mann of Uppsala University, filmed six different groups of 13 to 20 university students, all responding to the same lecture.

"Individuals' probability of starting clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already 'infected' by this social contagion," the researchers note. "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."

In other words, the rate at which newcomers begin clapping is proportional to how many are already clapping. Similarly, the quality of performance or excitement in the room are secondary to a larger question: how to coordinate the end of an applause.

The study is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Not addressed in the study are standing ovations (viewed by some as far too reflexive and automatic) or booing, a practice supported by its own wealth of scientific and nonscientific theories.