On January 30, 1962, in a school in Kanshasa—a village in Tanzania near Lake Victoria—three girls started to laugh hysterically for no apparent reason. Although the teacher tried to bring order in the class, other girls began laughing as well. As if it were a contagious disease, 95 of the 195 students in the school were affected. The duration of this uncontrollable laugh varied from a few hours to 16 days. As the days went by and the contagion did not disappear, the school was forced to close.
It was a boarding school, and its students were compelled to go home to their families. This caused contagion in other towns. In April, 217 people in Nshamba, a nearby town, were hospitalized for laughter attacks. In May, the Kanshasa boarding school re-opened its doors, only to close them again in June. By that time, the laughing epidemic had spread to countless small towns along the coast of Lake Victoria.
Fourteen schools were closed and over one thousand people were affected by this contagious laughter. The phenomenon did not disappear until 18 months after its appearance. Among the symptoms reported were, in addition to the laughter: pain, lightheadedness, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, fits of crying and screaming.
There is nothing that explains this phenomenon, although there are studies on the matter. Many attribute the phenomenon to “Mass psychogenic illness.” It seems that we humans, in specific circumstances, are prone to feeling illnesses in groups, even though there is no physical or environmental cause justifying the symptoms of this illness.
Laughter causes laughter. It is a contagious act. We are all used to the canned laughter on television sitcoms. These laughs are nothing more than an attempt to spread laughter to viewers. Laughing is a social act, not the expression of an emotion. Try to remember the last time you roared with laughter when you were completely alone. Laughter forms part of that group of social cues that impel us to do what other people are doing.
We like to observe other people’s behavior and imitate it. Although there are many of you shaking your heads right now, this process of observation and imitation is carried out below our awareness; thus, we do not even realize what we are doing.
If you see a musician playing music on the street, and in his money basket there are already a few coins, you will be more willing to give him one. If I were a bartender, the first thing I would do is have a transparent tip jar that was half full and at my customers’ eye level. We human beings, when we do not know how to behave, analyze what others have done and imitate them.
When we see two restaurants, one full and the other empty, we end up going into the one that has more clientele. We unconsciously assume that the food is better quality in the restaurant that is full. The more people that are doing something, the more credibility we associate with that action. In 1969, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out an experiment to measure how contagious an action is.
The experiment consisted of situating a person on a crowded street, looking up at the sky. Up above, there was nothing special to look at, but the percentage of people who imitated the action of looking at the sky was measured. When one person looked at the sky, 40% of the passers-by imitated that person. When there were two people, 60% of the passers-by imitated them. With three, the percentage rose to 65%, and with four it reached 80%. The interesting thing about the experiment is the exponential progression of imitation. If there are few people doing something, it is difficult to make others imitate them. But once the “Tipping point” is reached, it takes off. Take a look at this funny video:
The concept of Social Proof is not philosophy. It is something that we designers exploit more or less consciously. On e-commerce sites, we are surrounded by messages such as these: “People who bought this product were also interested in these others…,” “149 Followers,” “This video has been played 5,500 times…”
Decision-making delegated to what others have done before is behind the use of options checked by default. These options selected by default are understood by many users to be the recommended options, and they are used by most other users. They are short cuts for users’ decision-making—and they are a trick.
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