The Loh Down On Science

Why and when we clap

Mann and others, Journal of the Royal Society, 2013.

Experimental results. The plot shows the median proportion of individuals in the audience who have started clapping (black line), stopped clapping (red line) and are currently clapping (green line), aggregated over the 12 experimental presentations. For the starting and stopping proportions, the shaded area represents the interquartile range, illustrating the variation across experiments.

Why do humans . . . applaud?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, saying, the simplest answer?  Because other people do!

After all, when you're home alone, do you ever clap while listening to music?

It's one of many human social behaviors that seem to be contagious.

Researchers at Sweden's University of Uppsala wanted to understand the contagion better.  So they videotaped six groups of college students listening to an oral presentation.  As is customary, the audience always clapped at the end.

The team then analyzed the videos, looking at when each person started clapping, AND when they stopped.  Since everyone heard the same talk, the quality of the presentation was irrelevant to how much people clapped.

Turned out individuals were much more likely to start clapping when roughly fifty percent of the audience was clapping.  They were much less likely to start clapping if only five percent was.

Most clapping bouts lasted nine to fifteen claps per person.  But some clappers went as long as thirty!

And yes, anxious stage mothers, they’re for hire.  Just gotta . . . go to Sweden.

***** For more about this study, or for more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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