By Andrew Schein
School counselor Luba Bek tells her psychology students to conduct an experiment with their friends. They enter an elevator and face away from the doors, making sure they outnumber the unsuspecting test subjects.
Almost always, the test subjects âsneakilyâ turn around. Even though they have no idea why everyone else decided to face away from the doors, the test subjects go with the flow. The experiment shows how significantly one group of people can change the behavior of another group, even if the behavioral change is neither advantageous nor logical, Bek said.
Bek believes that the circumstances in the elevator parallel the situation on the staircases of Seaver during passing period. The left staircaseâthe one closer to Rugbyâreaches choking capacity.
For students going to the entrance of Seaver, which sits 19 feet away from the top of the left staircase but lies 48 feet away from the top of the right staircase, the bottle-neck on the left staircase is significant enough during passing periods that the right staircaseâthe one closer to Mungerâis usually the faster route. In the elevator and on the staircases, people sacrifice their rational self-interest to follow the group.
âComing down from Seaver, if a crowd of people on the left staircase is too big, they just stop,â Natasha Neufeld â08 said. âItâs obnoxious, and it drives me zonkers. I donât know why they do it.â
âHumans are sheep,â Director of Inter-Campus Security Kevin Giberson said. âThatâs what it is. As a cop, Iâve seen the herd mentality.â
Reactions to a fire in a crowded theater provide a good example. The best course of actionâthe rational course of actionâis for the theater-goers to stand up in their seats and look for the least crowded nearby exit. Instead, like sheep on staircases, everyone jams into one exit, Giberson said.
An informal experiment conducted by the Chronicle found that, during passing periods, going up the right staircase and walking the 48 feet is, on average, 10 seconds faster than going up the left staircase and walking the 19 feet. Going down, the difference is a smaller but statistically significant five seconds.
Studentsâ justifications for their irrationality jibe with theories of herd mentality.
âBecause everyone takes it,â Zoe Johnson â08 said, explaining her choice. âItâs the cool thing to do.â
Lauren Gold â09 agreed that she takes the left staircase because it is âthe cool thing to do.â
âItâs not about speedâitâs about fitting in,â Bek said. âNone of it is a conscious decision.â
Students choosing between left and right without any group influence usually choose the left staircase, Bek said, and this choice is logical. A total of 101 classes meet in Munger, which is closer to the right staircase, while 177 meet in Seaver and Feldman-Horn, which are both closer to the left staircase.
Only after traffic clogs the left staircase does it become the slower route. However, after the first few students choose the left staircase, almost everyone else follows. In an observatory survey conducted over five passing periods, 677 students took the left staircase, while only 79 took the right one.
The situation would be different if students were driving up the stairs in cars, Bek said. In that case, she believes students almost always would choose the faster route. In cars, most human interaction takes place within the automobile, between passengers and not with other people on the road. For this reason, cars behave less like herds than walking human beings do.
Bek described a commonly reproduced experiment where people in a room are given flashcards displaying three lines of varying length. As part of the experiment, almost every person in the room lies, saying that the line of middle length is the shortest one.
In a testament to the power of group influence and groupthink, the few people who have not been told to lie usually end up lying to go along with the rest of the group.
âIn general, group behavior is contagious,â Bek said. âMavericks are rather uncommon in teenage years, when people want to fit in. I take the right staircase when Iâm carrying food, and that almost gives me an excuse. But I still feel awkward, and Iâm not even a teenager trying to fit in!â
Josh Margolin â07 first took the staircase on the right in his third year at the Upper School.
âDude, Iâve never seen this before,â he said giddily. âThis is so weird. From here, I donât even recognize our schoolâthe viewâs totally different.â
â Additional reporting by Lucas Shaw