Are Humans Pack Animals?

Question: What are the similarities and differences between animal and human crowds?

Iain Couzin: Well, in many of the animal groups that we're looking at, you know, I mentioned ants, and they're a sort of special genetic sort of closeness, so we can exclude them for now. But even when we look at selfish organisms like the fish, you know, they're all locusts, you know, they've evolved to live within incredibly large groups and incredibly large societies. Now, we humans haven't. You know, we're thrown into these large cities now, but that's not actually how we evolved. And so we don't have sort of specific rules to optimize our situation here. And furthermore, you know, our mode of communication, verbal communication and written communication, is relatively slow compared to the sort of the mass media and all of the information that we have now. So there's some sort of fascinating challenges from a biological perspective to our societies.

But what we do find is that people are good at learning how to behave in crowds. For example, if you were to take people from, I don't know, the center of America, who have never been to a large city and pop them in the middle of Manhattan, not only would this be a sort of cultural shock, it would actually be difficult for them to behave within these crowds. These are sort of learnt behaviors that you sort of try things out and you eventually kind of optimize how to behave within these environments.

And then we film and we track people within crowds, what sort of astonishes me is how predictable, from a statistical perspective, how predictable crowds are. And so each individual, we can't necessarily predict, you know, whether you're going to go left or right, but when we start getting large groups of individuals, we can predict properties like how many lanes will form or, you know, what are certain times of day who will generally tend to move where. And we can also make predictions about congestion in these environments, and so forth.

Recorded on December 15, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Unlike many species, humans have had to adapt to living in large crowds. Yet in many ways, our crowds are as predictable as animals’.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

Universe works like a cosmological neural network, argues new paper

Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.

Credit: sakkmesterke
Surprising Science
  • Physicist proposes that the universe behaves like an artificial neural network.
  • The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
  • The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".
Keep reading Show less

Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.

Big Think LIVE

Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.

Keep reading Show less

We studied what happens when guys add their cats to their dating app profiles

43% of people think they can get a sense of someone's personality by their picture.

Photo by Luigi Pozzoli on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

If you've used a dating app, you'll know the importance of choosing good profile pics.

Keep reading Show less

Should you grow a beard? Here's how women perceive bearded men

Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"

Photo Credit: Frank Marino / Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
  • Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
  • Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Keep reading Show less

Quarantine rule breakers in 17th-century Italy partied all night – and some clergy condemned the feasting

17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts between religious freedom and public health regulations have been playing out in courts around the world.

Keep reading Show less