Last night BBC News filed a story by Science Reporter Rebecca Morelle with an intriguing headline:
Clapping reveals applause is a ‘social contagion’
The report was based on an article just published online (in English) in the Swedish Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Both the abstract and the full text of the article are available for free, so I shall not give excessive detail. However, the key sentence from the abstract is the following:
Within a group, a new behaviour can emerge first in a few individuals before it spreads rapidly to all other members.
This is what the four authors of the article refer to as “social contagion.”
While the names of the authors are not likely to mean much to readers of this site, it is worth considering their affiliations:
- The Department of Mathematics at Uppsala University in Sweden
- The Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, Sweden
- The Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom
- The Department of the Biology and Ecology of Fishes at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, Germany
With such credentials one would have expected more than anecdotal evidence. However, all the report presents are hypothesized mathematical models of the contagion effect, yet to be tested against empirical data.
I am reminded of an article by the late Stephen Jay Gould written for The New York Review of Books, which concerned, among other matters, the linguistic capacity of non-human animals. Gould observed that cognitive scientists seeking linguistic behavior in such animals spent too much time reading papers by other cognitive scientists and not enough time studying animal trainers. When it comes to this phenomenon of social contagion, one would have thought that the work of another kind of “animal trainer” would have been in order, at least in the history of musical performance if not in the present day.
In the Paris Opéra of the nineteenth century, that “animal trainer” was responsible for managing the members of a claque that would be placed in strategic locations throughout the audience to induce (contagiously?) general approval. William L. Crosten’s delightful book (probably resulting from a doctoral thesis), French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business, devotes considerable attention to the role that the claque played at Opéra performances. The “hero” of the book is Louis-Désiré Véron, who ran the Paris Opéra from 1831 to 1835. As Crosten put it, the claque was a major “management tool” for Véron:
The claque took its place alongside the press as one of Véron’s most powerful and most devoted aids. He considered it unthinkable to present a work without first making, the necessary arrangements for stimulating applause. Such preliminary dispositions were as much a part of the production scheme as anything that took place on the stage, and they received just as careful thought.
Crosten also devotes considerable attention to Véron’s preferred “animal trainer,” Auguste Levasseur, whose reputation was so strong that he was known simply as “Auguste” and tended to earn between twenty and thirty thousand francs a year for his expertise.
It is unlikely that Levasseur knew anything about mathematical models. However, it is clear that, at least at an intuitive level, he had a strong command of “working hypotheses.” Today’s scholars of social contagion might do better to accept the historical record of Levasseur’s activities as valid data points before thinking about future hypotheses and publications!