The Science of the College Flash Mob Rave
A young person's perspective on a strange social behavior
Posted Feb 24, 2012
Late last night, hundreds of warm bodies piled together in the 20° weather outside of the undergraduate library at UNC Chapel Hill. For ten minutes at midnight, Carolina students shed the weight of exam crunch-time in exchange for a loud, sweaty, brief, and spontaneous bonding session that can only be achieved by a flash mob rave of young people.
You might watch the video and think, "that's cool, I guess." Or you might be older, and watch the video and say, "hoodlums, all of you." Or you might be another college student, and think, "Man, I'm totally jeals, and I wish I went to Carolina." (I understand.) But take a second to think about what the hell you just watched. Seriously. What just happened?
If you weren't from this planet, and had no knowledge of music or dancing or common human behavior, and you saw a mass of people generate from nowhere to jump up and down together to the beat of loud sounds, you'd be beyond baffled.
This alien perspective helps in understanding the ultimate explanations for weird human behaviors. It forces you to step outside of your familiarity with common social customs and behaviors, and allows you to see things for what they are in purest form, with less of a subjective human lens. When too familiar with the nuances of our culture, its easy to only give proximal explanations for what's observed (a no-no to be wary of in evolutionary psychology research). For instance, you might think they join together to dance, they dance because everyone else is, and everyone else is dancing because it (pretty universally) feels good to dance with others. Really good. So good that hundreds of ambitious students were willing to momentarily give exams the middle finger and potentially make fools of themselves shaking it in front of their peers.
But the ultimate question here is, why does it feel so good? And if human behaviors are evolved functions, what adaptive advantage could this weird social behavior possibly confer? As one of the youngest bloggers on psychologytoday.com, I think its imperative that I shed a little light on this evolutionary question from a young person's perspective.
It might be the music. Remixed indie hip-hop songs like Kid Cudi's Pursuit of Happiness and Chiddy Bang's Fuck You, that played loudly above us during the rave, resound pretty strongly with college kids everywhere. These popular artists have geniously tapped into the contagious, arrogant attitude of today's twenty-somethings. The attitude that says, I'm young, I'm smart, I've got the whole world ahead of me, and screw everyone else (See: I'm In College, Therefore I Know Everything).
It could be the school pride. Carolina students have tremendous school spirit, and a notoriously strong alumni base. We have a lot to be proud of at our school. And though we are mostly strangers among each other, we are all members of a selective group that shares a lot of the same college experiences. When we won the national men's basketball championship in 2009, we raced to Franklin St. by the thousands to wreak havoc together. And when our student body president died tragically in 2008, we felt collective heartbreak, whether we knew her personally or not.
We may not always be conscious of it, but these sentiments unite us. We identify ourselves as belonging to something bigger, something powerful, and as human beings, we crave that. At one point, our ancestors' survival depended on their ability to fit in with the community. Affiliation with a community meant greater access to resources, and greater resources meant better chances of survival. Those that didn't feel the need to belong probably couldn't support themselves on their own, and would die out. Therefore, the genes that coded for prosocial behaviors persisted through generations. And remnants of these mechanisms still exist today. For example, recent research in social exclusion has found that individuals who have been socially excluded show an increased preference for genuine smiles vs. fake smiles. Supposedly, an event of social exclusion caused an adaptive cognitive response in these individuals that cued them into positive social indicators (the genuine smiles), and promoted reaffiliation with the group.
While there are many complex factors that contribute to the good feelings associated with this strange flash mob rave phenomenon, the social aspect is undeniable. We're young, and still feeling our way through the world— soaking up what we can, when we can— and brought together by a set of common experiences and sentiments. So, if at any point while watching the video you were shaking your head sardonically, saying "kids these days," reconsider. This might just be America's youth at it's best.