Walk with me?

Image credit: movebetterfeelbetterplaybetter.com

Moving, as I do, between well-populated cities and lovely leafy suburbs in two distinctly different parts of the world (I try and holiday ‘at home’ in India at least once a year and yes, there are pockets of suburban quiet there too!) I often notice the not-too-subtle differences in crowd dynamics and social norms. How many people you can fit into a square metre of space isn’t simply a question of physics, after all! The definitions of personal space, of boundaries (both physical and psychological) are so vastly different in the two countries I interchangeably call home, it becomes a fascinating revelation of human nature for a people-watcher like me.

Walking from a crowded shopping centre towards a train station in London today, I noticed I had fallen into step alongside a woman in audible high heels – you know, the kind that you can’t help noticing because they clip-clop-clip-clop down the street? I had been listening to music as I walked, but found I was matching her beat instead. As I turned to look in her direction, she smiled at me, so I took my headphones off and told her, “You know, hearing your heels on the pavement reminded me of something.” But she had interrupted me at ‘heels on the pavement’ and said, “Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you!”

But as I told her, it wasn’t that she had scared me, but that she had reminded me of a social experiment I had read about. One that described how people invariably change their pace when a stranger walks beside them for a while. I can’t find that link any more (please link to it in comments if this sounds familiar) but I did come across this video when looking for it.

Funnily enough, though, despite my telling her about this – and after she had smiled in my direction, after all – she laughed, but immediately sped up and walked away!

Searching for the actual experiment once home, I realised I’m not the only one who finds this fascinating – there’s an emerging field of science dedicated to observing, understanding and predicting crowd dynamics, and a suitably dense scientific paper written about it too, cryptic formulae and all.

When you think about it, as growing urban populations put increased pressure on public spaces and facilities (try boarding an early morning city-bound train and the suburban station won’t seem quite as genteel!) planning around human behaviour and crowd dynamics could mean the difference between a stampede and a successful evacuation in an emergency. As the crowd scientist (what an interesting job title!) Mehdi Moussaid points out, it requires an understanding of physics as well as cognitive behaviour, and essentially means you have to adjust for cultural bias.

And here’s an interesting conclusion from Moussaid’s report: A comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Just a complex way of acknowledging that I walk differently when in India – for a whole variety of very scientific reasons! And that my journeys are no less effective for it. In a few days’ time, I shall put this theory to the test!

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