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Why We Clap: The Psychology of Applause

The many subtle messages behind clapping and applause.

Key points

  • Clapping can be a sign of approval, a show of enthusiasm, an attention-getter, or it can be used to intimidate.
  • The rhythm and tempo of applause makes a difference.
  • Clapping seems to be a universal body language signal.

This post is co-authored by Ron Riggio and nonverbal communication expert Alan Crawley.

When and why do we clap? We get startled, and we clap. We try to get our dog’s (or our child’s) attention, and we clap loudly. We see a show, and we clap at the end of it (we might even applaud at the end of a movie, even though the actors in the film can’t hear us). What’s going on?

What is the psychology of clapping and applause?

To better understand why we clap, we need to go back to our evolutionary roots. Clapping creates noise and may have begun as a means of getting another’s attention or as a means to intimidate another—think of gorillas thumping their chests. In addition, along with the sound of a clap, we can see the gesture (e.g., in a theater, you may notice that someone, for some reason, is not applauding), so clapping is both a compelling auditory and visual signal.

Some clapping seems to be involuntary, such as when we clap our hands together when surprised or astonished. But much clapping is voluntary and intentional, such as when we choose to applaud another’s accomplishment or performance. Interestingly, audiences applauding a performance dates back at least to the ancient Greeks—so formal applauding for a performance has been around for millennia!

Here are six different types (and functions) of applause:

1. Applause of astonishment

This clapping occurs when someone is startled, surprised, or astonished. It may consist of one clap or several claps with varying tempo.

2. Recognitional applause

This is done after an accomplishment or as a welcome. Although we might individually applaud another’s accomplishment, we see this most frequently in audiences watching a performance. They may applaud when the entertainer appears and at the end of a performance. Applauding a team as they enter the field is another type of recognitional applause that says, “We support you,” and it occurs throughout the game when the team scores or makes an important play.

3. Motivational applause

This is the clapping that takes place when you are trying to encourage another’s efforts.

4. Playful applause

This is rhythmic applause that may occur when listening to and clapping along with the music. It may also occur while singing: for example, people clapping along as they sing “Happy Birthday.”

5. Ironic applause

This is applause that expresses displeasure, such as clapping after a particularly poor performance. The clapping tempo is typically much slower and less rhythmic than recognition applause.

6. Protocol applause

This is formal, “scripted” applause that occurs out of respect for a speaker or performer and what they are saying. A good example is the applause that occurs after each segment of the U.S. President’s State of the Union address. What is interesting in this instance is that typically only members of the President’s political party will applaud, with the other party’s members not applauding (“sitting on their hands”) unless the statement is one on which both parties are in agreement.

Although there is good evidence that applause is a universal phenomenon (members of all countries and cultures engage in applause), there are subtle cultural differences that govern the appropriateness of when and why members of a particular culture applaud.

Think of when you last clapped your hands. Why did you do it? What was the context?

References

Atkinson, J.M. 1984. Public speaking and audience responses: Some techniques

for inviting applause. In Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversational

Analysis, eds. J. M. Atkinson and J. Heritage, pp 3 70-412. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press

Morris, D. (1977). Man watching. A field guide to human behaviour.

Crawley, A. (in preparation). Clap, clap, clap. A review of the literature on applause.

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