Tipping Points: lessons from the crowd wave
Updated: Mar 13
By Michael Whaby
“Tipping point (noun): the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place” — Merriam-Webster
Crowd waves — the synchronized standing and applauding of adjacent fans in one single direction around a stadium — are fascinating. They are an example of collective human behavior that seems unnatural. That’s because they kind of are: The law of 150, as research indicates time and time again, suggests that humans — as well as other primates — cannot work efficiently in groups above 150 people.
According to Guinness World Records, however, the largest crowd wave included over 150,000 people.
Researcher Illes Farkas and his colleagues, with the department of biological physics at University Budapest, studied the physics and behavior of the crowd wave. They analyzed videotapes of fourteen different crowd waves — each crowd included over 50,000 people — and published their findings in Nature (Farkas et al. 2002).
Their findings included some physics and statistics of the wave: It typically proceeds in a clockwise direction at about twenty seats per second, and it is about fifteen seats wide at any given time. But Farkas was curious about what it took to initiate this process.
There are three conditions to consider, Farkas and his colleagues explain, for initiating a crowd wave: 1) the distance between audience members; 2) how many neighbors an audience member can see; 3) the readiness of an individual to stand. They also explained that the wave only seems to occur during very boring or very exciting times. And just 20 to 35 people — out of more than 50,000 people — are needed to start a crowd wave.
How could such a large, cooperative process like the crowd wave be ignited by such a small percentage of the total number of people? “It is essential to understand the conditions under which small groups can gain control of the crowd,” Farkas and his colleagues explained in their publication in Nature, “and how rapidly and in what form this perturbation or transition in behaviour could spread.”
To understand this, it might be useful to understand how tipping points can be reached. We love to appreciate the whole, but not the sum of its parts — and which “parts” make up most of the sum. I’m going to talk about one aspect of tipping points, using crowd waves as an analogy, that discusses the importance of few people in social epidemics.
In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes the Law of the Few, which explains the importance of connectors, mavens and salesmen in tipping points, or social epidemics. Using the crowd wave as an example, we can see how each of these types of people — connectors, mavens and salesmen — are crucial to social epidemics.
We might simply think of connectors as people that know a ton of other people. That would be correct to assume; however, the details here are important: Connectors are people with ties to various small social groups, Gladwell explains, which grants them acceptance to many social circles. From each of these small groups, the connectors might only have one or two strong relationships, while the rest of the people — the majority of them — are just mutual friends, or weak ties.
Research shows that people find jobs more often through mutual friends, or weak ties, rather than through closer friends. Connectors thrive from the power of the weak tie. Weak ties tend to open doors to different opportunities. This makes sense, because people in a very close-knit circle, or group, will all know about the same things as everyone else does. But connectors are in multiple circles, so they gain many perspectives and have access to information from various sources (Fig. 1).
Connectors not only have access to more information, but they also have the ability to spread information quickly. If each group was a stack of wood with gasoline on it, then connectors sharing information with each group — even by just telling one member of each group — is like throwing a match in each stack of wood.
Now, it should be easy to imagine that connectors would be those in a crowd, at a stadium perhaps, that already recognized and said, “Hello fellas!” to three groups of people nearby. Remember, just 20 to 35 people are needed to start a crowd wave. But still, connectors would need some help to get a crowd wave started.
There are those people that seem to know everything about something, sometimes before it even happens. These are the mavens of the world. In his book, Gladwell refers to Market Mavens, meaning mavens of different markets. For instance, if the market is cryptocurrency, there will be “cryptocurrency mavens” that will know when the price of certain cryptocurrencies will rise or fall. These are the people that we want to take advice from (Fig. 2).
Likewise, there must be crowd wave mavens! Imagine crowd mavens raving about the best times to start a crowd wave, and how many people are needed to start it, and then going into detail like how I did before — because you know crowd wave mavens read Farkas’ publication.
Crowd mavens know the conditions to start a crowd wave: There must be at least 20 to 35 people; They must be in close proximity to one another; They must be visible to other fans; People must be ready to stand. So, probably not directly after half-time when everyone has nachos on their lap. Try more for early 4th quarter of a not-so-close game, where half the people are just holding their twelve-dollar Coors Lights.
Even with all of this knowledge, the mavens of crowd waves would not hold enough power to initiate a crowd wave alone. They are not connectors, so their word doesn’t spread as fast. Also, they are not particularly convincing. Although their knowledge is true, sometimes more influence is needed to sway people in a particular direction.
So, connectors offer group overlap — connections to various social circles. Mavens offer important knowledge, usually identifying trends before they happen. Connectors and mavens would make a great team, and news of knowledge would travel fast if they worked together. But if the message being spread doesn’t seem interesting or worthwhile, nobody would give a shit! The message has to be good; it has to carry influence (Fig. 3).
Salesmen are masters of influence. They understand the psychology of persuasion, and before people even realize, they are convinced about whatever the salesmen are selling. Whenever they relay information to others, it just feels right.
Notice how each of these types of people — connectors, mavens and salesmen — fuel one another. Mavens provide knowledge for salesmen and connectors. Connectors plant the seed by spreading the word quickly, but sometimes the word isn’t packaged well enough. Cue salesmen to make the word more convincing and, as Gladwell would say, sticky. Simultaneously, salesmen could make the best sale of their life, but if its only to one group, or person, the word won’t spread. Cue connectors to spread the fire of the word that is so persuasive.
This is one way to view the power of small numbers in large processes. Once the crowd wave is started, it is carried largely by influence, or peer pressure (“If everyone else is doing it, I will, too”). But that’s how most things eventually tip — how a new trend is formed.
Collective behavior, as described by Robert E. Park, is the result of a particular social interaction. The details of the social interaction are important. The setting and the circumstances have to be perfect for a collective behavior to emerge, just like with the crowd wave.
I hope this helps alter the context in which we perceive how movements happen. We can be so carried away by the things that tip — we all have a cell phone or laptop — that we don’t realize that anything had even tipped in the first place. We just become part of it because that’s what everyone else is doing. But we often don’t realize how these epidemics happened: Sometimes all that’s needed is just enough of the right things, at the right time, to cause a big change.
References and Recommendations
Farkas, I, Helbing, D, Vicsek, T. (2002). Mexican waves in an excitable medium. Nature, 419(6903):131–2.
Mannix, E., & Neale, M. A. (2005). What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations. Psychological Science in the Public Interest: a Journal of the American Psychological Society, 6(2), 31–55. doi:10.1111/j.1529–1006.2005.00022.x.
Sumpter, D. J. T. (2006). The principles of collective animal behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 361(1465), 5–22. doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1733.
Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company.
Collective behaviour | psychology | Britannica.com. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/science/collective-behaviour.
Largest Mexican wave | Guinness World Records. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/largest-mexican-wave.
The Physics And Psychology Of “The Wave” At Sporting Events : NPR. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/2016/08/15/488285360/the-physics-and-psychology-of-the-wave-at-sporting-events.
Wave (audience) — Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_(audience).