Why Applause is Contagious

Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 03:52 PM

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.


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Comments [3]


The reason to go to a concert is to have a good time. "Astute and educated listener" or not if one enjoyed themselves they should applaud, also the performers might have taken pride in the fact they were the source of that enjoyment, so one should applaud in order to demonstrate your appreciation. I'm sure they are happy to learn of it, because of all the hard work they put into it. Sometimes I find myself applauding because I was moved by the composition itself, so in a way I'm expressing my appreciation to the composer who may have been deceased a long time ago. Too bad some astute and educated listeners attend concerts and find themselves measuring one performer against another. That's not a way to have a good time, so I pity them.

Jul. 07 2013 06:06 PM

Discerning listeners applaud -- or NOT applaud -- spontaneously, as they are an active participant in the live concert/recital experience. However, more and more I'm finding that the vast majority of patrons feel the need to leap to their feet and show everyone, including the soloist and/or orchestra, how demonstrative they can be. And once one person leaps to their feet...well, there you go. Another over-the-top reaction to oftentimes a simply acceptable and agreeable performance.

Along the same lines, one cough triggers a smattering of coughs of varying degrees throughout the hall. Is that truly necessary?

A nation of sheep. Philistine sheep.

Jun. 29 2013 01:09 AM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

With the caveat of realizing this might appear to sound haughty...

I try not to let my reaction be dependent upon other audience members. I, probably along with other WQXR listeners, consider myself an astute and educated listener and I try to give performers the reaction their work deserves. Sometimes I'm the first to start applauding before the last chord is truncated, and sometimes I'm the last. I'll be happy to revive dying applause to bring performers out for another encore, even when everyone else is rushing to get off to their post-concert activities. And I often stop applauding before the rest of the audience--not every performance of Beethoven's Fifth or Dvorak's Ninth merits four curtain calls.

Perhaps if I were filmed by the authors of this study, they might find that I react differently based upon my surrounding audience members, but this is how I aspire to react.

I think there is much more of a herd/crowd mentality these days--afraid to stand out, especially in such a formal venue as a classical music concert hall. Also, with regard to classical music this would be exaggerated because today's audiences are generally so much less educated and discerning with regard to classical music that they might have no valid basis for measuring the merits of a performance other than by the reactions of their fellow audience members.

Also note that the study cited above was conducted on lecturers, which probably would not contain the same emotional and physical component of a music concert.

Jun. 21 2013 01:01 PM

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