It's the holidays, and you just heard the gate attendant make the final boarding call for your flight, departing from gate G-42. As you sprint onto the moving walkway at gate G-23, you find yourself stuck behind an unpassable flying V of slow-moving sweat pants. You use your rolling suitcase to beat your way past them only to find yourself stuck behind another V-shaped group, obliviously chatting away about the climate up their respective asses. You lift your suit case to beat your way to freedom a second time, but then you hear the shots ring out from the TSA agents behind you. Your last thought is, Worth it.
Oh sure, they get to bring guns to the airport. But if we do it, suddenly that's "terrorism"?
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
After studying crowds of people on busy streets, mathematicians found that as crowds get denser, people walking together tend to shift positions so they can continue to communicate over the increased noise and distraction. Rather than walking in a line as they do in noncrowded environments, groups shift into rough V shapes, with the group members in the middle falling back behind the rest.
This un-aerodynamic form slows down the whole crowd, because the people behind them have to leave more space to avoid bumping into them. Think of it like Tetris: Horizontal lines fit right on top of each other, while triangles would fill up the screen quickly. If you get enough of this type of group, the crowd will slow almost to a halt, and you will just totally lose your shit in the silence of your own headspace.
"You like walking really slowly and muttering? Me too! Holy shit, let's all slow down and talk about this right fucking now!"
And it gets worse: Trying to walk around these groups, or yelling at them to move faster, actually makes the problem worse. "You're contributing to chaos. Crowds are self-organized systems, so when you don't cooperate, the system breaks and you slow everyone down," explained one of the scientists, who has obviously never been caught behind a crowd of elderly shoppers as they pause to contemplate whether this store will have the kind of support stockings they are looking for.
This crowd-slowing effect gets worse the more groups there are in a crowd, so your best bet is to try to move to a city in which nobody has any friends.
The city of Brotherly Irritation.
Sometimes, there's actually a good reason why we're stuck in traffic. Most of us don't mind waiting for 10 minutes on our morning commute if we can see orphans being rescued from a wreck involving a truck with a "Deadly Reptiles and Liquid Sulfur Delivery Service" sign on the side.
"These Komodo dragons are pretty cool, but they could really use a few dabs of sulfur."
More often, though, traffic on crowded roads just stops, and then starts again, and then stops. For no apparent reason.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
These traffic stoppages have been familiar to scientists for years. They're called "shockwave jams," and they're a hell of a lot less cool than that name makes them sound.
It works like this: A road is carrying a high load of traffic, and a single driver taps on his brakes. Maybe because he's remembered there's a speed camera coming up, or he's a nervous driver, or he got distracted by a billboard for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie and started wondering whether it could live up to the promise of the original trilogy. The driver behind him hits his brakes to avoid crashing into the car in front. This "wave" of car-based human folly travels backward along the road at a rate of about 12 miles an hour until traffic stops altogether, often for miles. Researchers have observed shockwaves like this in situations involving just 22 cars circling a small track. Even though the drivers were instructed to maintain a constant speed, jams started appearing almost immediately.
So is there anything you can do about these things? Yes, actually. A single driver can "break" these jams by leaving a significant amount of open space in front of him in heavy traffic, resisting the temptation to accelerate and close the gap even when cars cut in ahead. This technique not only stops the driver from having to brake when he reaches the back end of a wave, it actually destroys the wave for anyone behind him. There's a video of a guy doing it here. So if you want to feel like the world's most sensible superhero, this might be the technique for you.
"Look, out on the road! It's a sedan! It's a hatchback! It's 'Doesn't Drive Like a Cockbite' Man!"
Most of us are familiar with the bystander effect, an unfortunate phenomenon in which people in crowds ignore others in danger because they think that someone else in the vicinity will go to their rescue. But what about the generally dickish way people in cities act even when you're not being mugged? When you're in a small town, chances are that people will be friendly and happy to talk to you, and all you'll really have to worry about is being attacked by mutants while having sex in the forest.
In the city, however, everything from ordering food to passing people on the street will probably be accompanied by intense surliness. This is not because rural folk are inherently kinder, either: People from nonurban backgrounds tend to start acting the same way once they've been in the city for a while.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
It's because of "urban overload," the incredibly large amount of information that those in urban environments must process. In one experiment testing the theory, a man wearing a cast pretended to drop some boxes of books while hidden observers counted how many strangers would offer to help. What determined the number of people who stopped to help wasn't whether passersby were wearing business suits or Stetsons, but whether a noisy piece of machinery was audible in the background. More than five times as many people stopped to help in a quiet environment than in a noisy one.
The study didn't come right out and say that headphones turn us into soulless monsters, but it was pretty heavily implied.
According to science, it works like this: Modern city dwellers must wade through thousands of potential social interactions every day. In order to deal with this, they must be selective about what they focus on. This leads them to unconsciously ignore "unimportant" information, whether it's a flashing strip club advertisement or an injured kitten.
"Ahh, they'll work it out."
The theory was first proposed in 1970 by Stanley Milgram, who observed that city dwellers try to cope by using "filtering devices." He meant it metaphorically back then, but the fact that we started stuffing real filtering devices into our ears as soon as they were invented means that his theory is holding up pretty well.
Another thing that social scientists have noted is that although most impersonal city interaction seems rude, it's actually also a form of politeness. Most of the time, people passing on the street or standing together in an elevator are not really ignoring each other.
Especially not if the office cafeteria served boiled cabbage for lunch.
Instead, we'll acknowledge the other person by looking at him briefly without eye contact and then looking away. This is called "civil inattention," and it works by letting the other person know that you see him, but are respecting his right to privacy. If we urbanites really didn't care about the people around us, we'd do stuff like point and stare if someone was wearing a funny hat. This technique allows us to walk the line between total blanking and overfamiliar creepiness, a balance that is of desperate importance when the crowded subway is forcing our elbow into someone's crotch.
And find out why all these assholes are buying our new book. (Hint: Because it's a NYT Bestseller.)
And stop by Linkstorm to discover why people are boners on the Internet.
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