The best performers receive the most applause, right? Wrong, suggests a new study that found applause dynamics takes on a life of its own during a concert or other event.

The research, presented in the latest Journal of the Royal Society Interface, found that applause is more like a disease in terms of how it spreads. Applauding turns out to be a form of what’s known as “social contagion.”

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During the study, “clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already ‘infected’ by this social contagion, regardless of their spatial proximity,” wrote lead author Richard Mann of Uppsala University and his colleagues. “The cessation of applause is similarly socially mediated, but is to a lesser degree controlled by the reluctance of individuals to clap too many times.”

In other words, we don’t want to be perceived as idiots for clapping too much.

The study involved filming groups of 13-20 university students attending an oral presentation. The findings could likely apply to any kind of mass gathering — even a big family birthday party — where people might applaud.

Mann and the other researchers determined that applause dynamics is all about the sound and not about seeing other people clapping. So if you hear other people clapping, you’re likely to applaud too.

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“The time the audience spends clapping can vary considerably,”  the researchers wrote, “even in the absence of any differences in the quality of the presentations they have heard.”

The bottom line is that applause appears to have more to do with social dynamics than with how well the singer, speaker, athlete or other on-stage individual is doing. Additional factors, such as whether or not alcohol is consumed, can come into play as well.

Laughter in groups serves as yet another example of social contagion, as this woman at a televised British game show shows.

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