Saturday science subject: Flock mentality

— 11:19 AM on February 16, 2008

If you've ever felt like your peers sometimes exhibit the individuality of a flock of sheep, you're not alone—and not just because of all the rebellious teenagers out there. Researchers at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom have carried out a study on human crowds, and as Science Daily explains, they found that it takes just a handful of people to unconsciously influence the decisions of a majority.

Professor Krause, with PhD student John Dyer, conducted a series of experiments where groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. Within the group, a select few received more detailed information about where to walk. Participants were not allowed to communicate with one another but had to stay within arms length of another person.

The findings show that in all cases, the 'informed individuals' were followed by others in the crowd, forming a self-organising, snake-like structure. "We've all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd," says Professor Krause. "But what's interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren't allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn't realise they were being led by others."

By running other experiments with different group sizes, the researchers found that it takes only 5% of "informed individuals" to influence the remaining 95% in large crowds of 200 people or more. Science Daily says these findings "could have major implications" for directing crowds in the event of a disaster or simply for urban pedestrian flow organization.

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