Studies confirm human tendency to follow the crowd

Some recent studies again show that humans are influenced by crowds:

In fact, recent studies suggest that our sensitivity to crowds is built into our perceptual system and operates in a remarkably swift and automatic way. In a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, A.C. Gallup, then at Princeton University, and colleagues looked at the crowds that gather in shopping centers and train stations.

In one study, a few ringers simply joined the crowd and stared up at a spot in the sky for 60 seconds. Then the researchers recorded and analyzed the movements of the people around them. The scientists found that within seconds hundreds of people coordinated their attention in a highly systematic way. People consistently stopped to look toward exactly the same spot as the ringers.

The number of ringers ranged from one to 15. People turn out to be very sensitive to how many other people are looking at something, as well as to where they look. Individuals were much more likely to follow the gaze of several people than just a few, so there was a cascade of looking as more people joined in.

In a new study in Psychological Science, Timothy Sweeny at the University of Denver and David Whitney at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at the mechanisms that let us follow a crowd in this way. They showed people a set of four faces, each looking in a slightly different direction. Then the researchers asked people to indicate where the whole group was looking (the observers had to swivel the eyes on a face on a computer screen to match the direction of the group)…

If you try the experiment, you can barely be sure of what you saw at all. But in fact, people were amazingly accurate. Somehow, in that split-second, they put all the faces together and worked out the average direction where the whole group was looking.

In other studies, Dr. Whitney has shown that people can swiftly calculate how happy or sad a crowd is in much the same way.

Humans are social creatures. This can be hard to remember within societies and time periods when individualism is stressed and people think of themselves as above group behavior. Of course, group behavior varies quite a bit given the context but we often go along with the crowd.

Does social media, like Facebook and Twitter, lead to revolutions (like recent events in Tunisia)?

Early news reports about the recent uprising in Tunisia have suggested that social media played a role as participants used such technology and organize and coordinate activities. (See this AP story with the headline of “Jobless youths in Tunisia riot using Facebook.”) In the midst of a lively debate over whether social media actually can lead to revolution (see the earlier post on Malcolm Gladwell’s recent thoughts on this), a sociologist provides a short overview of how he thinks sociology has addressed (or has not addressed) this question:

When the debate does pick up again, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few new wrinkles added into the mix. What all of the above writers share, I would argue, is, first, a notion of collective action overly-indebted to definitions of action and coordination provided by economics, and (second) a somewhat a-historical focus in digital technology. One of the problems with the debate as it is currently structured is that other academic disciplines, particularly sociology, have largely stopped asking questions about the relationship between the media and social movements. Indeed, sociology has largely stopped asking questions about the media at all. (I’m generalizing wildly here, of course, but as evidence I would point you toward the cogently argued and well-titled article by Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz, “Why American Sociology Abandoned Mass Communication Research.”) A second problem with the current debate lies in the fact that more complex theorizing about the nature of technological artifacts has yet to penetrate the mainstream debates over the roles played by technology in political protest.

There are, of course, exceptions. When it comes to deep and important thinking about media and social movements from a sociological perspective I’d point you toward work by Francesca Polletta and Edwin Amenta at UC Irvine, W. Lance Bennett’s work on political communication and protest, and especially research by Andrew Chadwick, and John Downing. In his discussion of “organizational repertoires” and their relationship to media, just as one example, Chadwick draws on a lengthy tradition of thought in classic social movement research aimed at understanding the role “repertoires play in sustaining collective identity. They are not simply neutral tools to be adopted at will, but come to shape what it means to be a participant in a political organization. Values shape repertoires of collective action, which in turn shape the kind adoption of organizational forms.”

In short, a primary advantage provided by a core sociological perspective on social movements is that they bring values and culture back into our conversation, problematizing notions of what collective action even means in the first place.

I would be interested to hear how other sociologists would respond to this, particularly those who study and write about social movements. Just being part of a Facebook or Twitter conversation or group doesn’t not necessarily lead to collective action. So when does organizing through social media turn from just an online activity to rioting in the streets?

Here is a bit of the AP story talking about how Facebook was used in a country where some Internet uses, such as YouTube, are regulated, but Facebook is not:

Video-sharing sites like YouTube and Daily Motion are banned in Tunisia, where newspapers are tightly censured, but Facebook abounds and videos posted there are quickly spread around.

One in 10 Tunisians has a Facebook account, according to Ben Hassen, whose movement is also on Facebook.

“It’s a form of civil resistance,” he said.

How exactly did this happen? And with a limited number of people in the country on Facebook, how did this become something larger? Sounds like a start to a research paper…