Saturday, September 03, 2011

The tyranny of the authority of signs vs the mimicry of monkeys

When on holiday in Barcelona recently I watched an amusing example of human behaviour which illustrates our irrational reliance on authority – following its dictacts even when the evidence of our own eyes compels us to do otherwise.

In this case travellers at Barcelona Sants station were confronted with both an up and a down escalator to choose from to go down to the platform. 

An easy choice you’d think. An easy rational choice, yes.

But introduce a confusingly placed sign and it seems we will often switch off our rational thought, ignore the evidence of our own eyes, and follow the authority of the sign.

In some cases this was true even when people were coming up the ‘up’ escalator right in front of the person planning to use the same escalator to go down – leading to results that kept me amused for many moments.

I was lucky enough to have a flipcam in my pocket so recorded what unfolded. 

Perhaps what follows below also illustrates that we are more likely to be convinced by authority (represented by the sign) when we are in an agitated state (ie the folk in a hurry seem most likely to follow the orders of the signs over and above the herd instinct of following those folk who are going the right way.

This perhaps has implications for channelling behaviour in riot situations of the kind discussed on this blog in recent weeks.

I was particularly amused by the behaviour emerging towards the end of this 3min video in which it appears our herd instinct has us copying some very irrational behaviour – ie you have to try to go down the wrong escalator first before returning to try the right one. It’s what all the rest of us monkeys are doing...

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?