Boxing Day is a great day to go shopping, you can grab yourself bargains that you could not grab throughout the year, navigating your way through the thousands of bargain shoppers. A few years ago, I decided to brave Boxing Day shopping and became one of those bargain shoppers on a mission, on the most crowded shopping street in Europe, Oxford Street is what I’m talking about. The street that all Londoners try to avoid until hell freezes over, well, not quite, but you know what I mean, if you want to avoid crowds even on a normal day, you avoid Oxford Street.
|Boxing Day 2011, Oxford Street
Boxing Day is a whole other occasion. It’s an interesting place on Boxing Day, especially if you go in with a determined focus, you can get out of it unscathed by the evening, with bags full of things that you don’t really need, but you just end up buying (I’ll let other experts explain that behaviour: here and here).
If you just take a step back, and look around at what is happening, people start flocking to shops to spot bargains. In order to get to these shops, they navigate the thousands and thousands of people on the street. You have a shop (or many shops) in mind, and you want to get to each shop as quickly as possible so that you don’t miss out on those bargains of the year. In order to get to the next shop in the quickest possible way in a crowd, you start mimicking behavour, humans are indeed great social creatures that navigate the social world through mimicry. We like to copy others, in order to be socially accepted, and at the same time, we like forming our own unique identity, and we work by balancing these conflicting interests.
In this context, we find ourselves mimicking each other whilst navigating crowds. Due to the sheer number of people in our path, we can’t normally see our destination clearly, but we know the direction we want to go. For example, I want to walk to Selfridges through the Boxing Day crowds to grab that sought after bargain (yes, that’s where we all want to go on Boxing Day, considering they had an estimated turnover of £2 million in one hour yesterday). How do I get there?
First of all, I can’t see my way due to the amount of people present, so I observe the person walking in front of me going in the direction of Selfridges, and I start following them. What I’m actually doing here is I’m passing my decision making power to the person in front as I can’t see the path, and I’m trusting that person to take me in the direction I want as quickly as possible through the crowd. There is a term for this kind of following behaviour, known as herding. This is the first step I take in order to get me to my bargain. The transfer of power itself is known as social contagion.
Now, if I take a step back (not literally), and look around, I start to see every one of us is following a person in front of us in order to help us get through the crowd. The herding behaviour leads to multiple layers of people flow forming travelling in the same direction, especially due to the number of people on the street. We can look at this from an analogy of car traffic on a motorway. On a motorway junction, before entering the motorway, at the slip road, two roads merge into one. Similar merging happens when I’m walking through the crowd, the merging of people travelling in the same direction. This gives rise to our second phenomenon, known as the zipper effect . It’s pretty much like zipping your jacket, where each zipper tooth is layered over the other, similarly you’re the zipper tooth, and you start zipping against other pedestrians travelling in the same direction.
There’s a lot of trust we put in the person in front to get us to our destination. This trust we put in each other leads to our third phenomenon, the emergence of lanes formed of the ‘zipped’ multiple layers through the crowd. These lanes can be in both directions, and there may be more than two lanes at the same time. Due to the herding behaviour, these lanes generally become homogeneous, and we are unconsciously giving up a part of our identity to become part of this homogeneous flow. This may or may not seem obvious, but the observance, and dissection of these individual steps that lead to these phenomena help us explain the way crowds behave. How we transfer our own identity to the identity of the crowd, leading to the emergence and disappearance of flows and lanes, gives us an understanding of our own identity within a crowd. There is also a term for these types of flows, not a creative name, but one that makes the meaning clear, it’s known as lane formation. These lanes are ever changing, and they adapt to people in the crowd just standing, the existence of bus stops, street lamps, etc. along the street. It’s interesting to see how we as people are adaptable, and this adaptability also works really well at a macro-scale, the flow lanes adapting to the environment present to us.
Being a part of these lanes, and flowing amongst it then gets me close to my destination, that is Selfridges. This gives me the flexibility to again take control of my decision making and I walk towards it and enter this multi-million pound department store in order to grab that well sought after bargain. Before I know it though, I’ve again passed part of my decision making to the marketers that get me to buy items that I don’t really need. Again, I leave that to the other experts I’ve linked to, to explain how that’s done.
|Boxing Day 2011, Oxford Street (showing the emergence of Lanes)
Why am I talking about this? Well, in addition to the fact that this is a blog on crowd simulation and to understand how crowds form and behave, it was one of those things, where I was walking along Oxford Street on Boxing Day a few years ago, I decided to take a picture of the crowd at the time and post it on one of our current social media platforms. However, observing the photo closer, you start to distinguish the lanes that have formed through the crowds, which I thought was quite interesting to observe in my natural environment outside my normal research realm. As you can see with the photo overlaid with the lanes. Also, the current timing seemed quite fitting, as I decided I didn’t want to brave it again this year.
Other than that, hope you’ve all had a great Christmas, have a better understanding of what you do when you go out shopping on Boxing Day, but most importantly, found yourselves some good bargains that you actually do need.
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