The hard right versus the easy left

Chronicle Staff

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 “sneakily” 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 staircase—the one closer to Rugby—reaches 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 staircase—the one closer to Munger—is usually the faster route. In the elevator and on the staircases, people sacrifice their rational self-interest to follow the group.

“Coming down from Seaver, if a crowd of people on the left staircase is too big, they just stop,” Natasha Neufeld ’08 said. “It’s obnoxious, and it drives me zonkers. I don’t know why they do it.”

“Humans are sheep,” Director of Inter-Campus Security Kevin Giberson said. “That’s what it is. As a cop, I’ve seen the herd mentality.”

Reactions to a fire in a crowded theater provide a good example. The best course of action—the rational course of action—is 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.

Students’ justifications for their irrationality jibe with theories of herd mentality.

“Because everyone takes it,” Zoe Johnson ’08 said, explaining her choice. “It’s the cool thing to do.”

Lauren Gold ’09 agreed that she takes the left staircase because it is “the cool thing to do.”
“It’s not about speed—it’s about fitting in,” Bek said. “None of it is a conscious decision.”
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.

“In general, group behavior is contagious,” Bek said. “Mavericks are rather uncommon in teenage years, when people want to fit in. I take the right staircase when I’m carrying food, and that almost gives me an excuse. But I still feel awkward, and I’m not even a teenager trying to fit in!”

Josh Margolin ’07 first took the staircase on the right in his third year at the Upper School.

“Dude, I’ve never seen this before,” he said giddily. “This is so weird. From here, I don’t even recognize our school—the view’s totally different.”

— Additional reporting by Lucas Shaw