The next time you finish a PowerPoint presentation and the crowd breaks into applause, don’t let your ego run wild. It turns out that clapping spectators tend to keep clapping because of the behavior of applauders around them rather than their actual level of enjoyment. And when the length of applause times are recorded and plotted on a graph, the whole dynamic looks remarkably similar to the way people contract and recover from disease.
That’s the conclusion in a paper recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society by a group of mathematicians and biologists who examined applause as a sort of easy-to-observe meme or “social contagion.” Observing reactions to two different PowerPoint presentations, researchers noticed that “people responded most strongly to what proportion of the room was already clapping,” reports PopSci. “To a lesser extent, people also just didn’t like clapping for a very long time. People nearby didn’t matter that much, probably because you can hear clapping from others in the room even if they’re far away.”
The researchers noted in their abstract, “The time the audience spends clapping can vary considerably, even in the absence of any differences in the quality of the presentations they have heard.”
So what’s the point? The question of what makes ideas or phenomena spread and go viral has become a hot area for researchers right now. Analyzing the mechanisms through which a simple trend like applause catches on could help come up with models to analyze the spread of more sophisticated memes. (Suggested next topic: figuring out what made the DJ and producer Diplo’s #ExpressYourself selfies spread so quickly?)