The Frontal Cortex

Social Contagions

A fascinating YouTube video, from the Sasquatch Music Festival:

This reminds me of the classic Milgram study on social conformity. (No, I’m not talking about that Milgram experiment.) In this study, Milgram had “confederates” stop on a busy city street and look upwards at the sky. He demonstrated that when one person was looking up, 40 percent of passerby also looked up, just in case something interesting was happening. (There was nothing to look at, just sky and buildings.) When two people were looking up, 60 of passerby looked up. When there were three people, the percentage jumped to 65 percent, and when there were four people nearly 80 of strangers stopped and stared upwards.

This dance worked the same way. At a certain point, the group of awkward dancers becomes undeniable – they can no longer be ignored. And that is when the contagion begins. Once we start to wonder whether the dance is fun – or what that cluster of people is looking at – then it’s only a matter of time before we too start to dance. Jane Jacobs, in other words, was right: “Life attracts life”.

Update: Here is a reenactment of the Milgram experiment by Julie Coultas, a psychologist at the University of Sussex. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine life before YouTube.


  1. #1 Al West
    June 10, 2009

    That, I believe, is what they call “fucking awesome”.

  2. #2 Danielle Rudder
    June 10, 2009

    Agreed with Al.

  3. #3 jope
    June 10, 2009

    It happens in both directions, too: In college I was stationed by the upper-level seating during a concert by Christian heavy-metal band. All these kids were out on the floor jumping around and then… I spotted one kid fall to the ground and start doing the faux-epileptic Spirit thing. Immediately there was a rippling through the crowd as the rest followed suit, until no one was left standing. The whole phase shift took place in the blink of eye, but having caught its progression, I had a good laugh afterward.

  4. #4 Analee
    June 10, 2009

    It looks like the first 1-3 guys that joined the original guy may have been making-fun of him (or joined him because of a dare by friends), but I have absolutely no excuse for the rest of the hundred or so people that came RUNNING to join the ever-growing dance crowd. Life definitely attracts life. And that was awesome!

  5. #5 Davis
    June 10, 2009

    I was actually there to see that in action. The dancing guy had been making a spectacle of himself all day — he was completely hilarious (and probably more than a little high). There are some other videos of him dancing elsewhere at the event; I’m not sure why he attracted a crowd that time, but not others.

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    ahm… drugs can be a beautiful thing…

  8. #8 Riley
    June 10, 2009

    Social Cog Theory in perfect form

  9. #9 Mar
    June 12, 2009

    So nice!!
    I think the 2nd guy was the one who made the magic (joke or not. He just stand up and started to dance with this high-guy. Maybe he’s the reason why this crowd started to dance and not others.

  10. #10 Sammy
    June 13, 2009

    Haha, that’s awesome. I have two things to say: First, it kind of reminds me of an Improv Everywhere mission where poor lost “Rob” got an entire stadium full of baseball fans to try to direct him back to his seat.

    Second, I tried to look up the song from the background (haha, I guess it should’ve been the foreground if you were actually there), and found a video of the song on youtube – it’s Unstoppable by Santogold, by the way. I had to go back about 60 pages of comments to get to one that didn’t say they came there after seeing the dancing man.

  11. #11 Anibal
    June 15, 2009

    Two forces drive human behaviour: the need to be accepted by others (hence, social conformity) and the need to be unique (individualism).

    What is the optimal response or way to behave in that situation?

    Some sort of empathogenics, say drugs, run rampant in such a bucolic scene i dare to say, because it makes no sense to me that kind of emulation.

  12. #12 Anibal
    June 15, 2009

    …or as some comentator who discovered the background music: “Santigold”… maybe we can say is the power of music which transform us in comunal creatures.

    Santigold is cool!

  13. #13 davidavid
    June 30, 2009

    Music & dancing probably spread across the planet tens of thousands of years ago in a similar way. One nut did the huckle-buck to the rhythm of some water droplets in a cave, fast-forward to The Who. Love ’em or hate them, hippies invented music.

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    Wow. That’s amazing…. impressive? I’m working on my early childhood education thinger, came across “behavior contagion”, and was more interested in that than the homework. Found this. Yes. If ADULTS can’t help it…. why do we question children.
    Love it. Thank you.

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