Japanese TV Brings Us Unusual Experiment in Group Behavior

Everyone likes a good social experiment, and boy, have we got a delightfully quirky one from Japan. Although I’m unaware of general Japanese endeavors in testing the human psyche, it only stands to reason that the same culture that brings us “Human Tetris” and the “Sasuke” ninja warrior competition, would deliver an optimally entertaining look into group behavior.

So we’ve all seen plenty of action films wherein the hero/heroes are vastly outnumbered by a mass of henchmen, yet—daringly!—manage to fight their way to victory against the unskilled villains. Well this bit of TV drama aims to find out how this scenario might play out realistically.

Three master fencers are pitted against 50 novices. The rules are skewed to better position the masters, since the aim is to puncture a balloon on the opponent’s chest; in this way, the pros with their optimal dexterity should fair better than if their entire bodies were left open.  But still, 50 against three? Those are some long odds.

Still, academics have long been flummoxed by the workings of crowd psychology. Human behavior on the individual vs. group level can often seem counter-intuitive to predict, and a herd mentality can cause us feeble humans to make poor decisions. So who knows what will happen?

Let’s get to it. You can watch the clip below to view the whole segment, and make your own mental predictions as the fight ensues. (Or you can go ahead and read the spoiler below.)

As it turns out, neither side dominates the fight, and the trajectory of the action takes some unpredictable turns. First, in a move completely antithetical to movie heroes, the masters effing run as soon as the match begins. They head for the high ground and sort of band together, back to back, before beginning to engage with their enemies. A pretty rational move.

In a pure world, we would expect the group to rush the experts for the group goal of overwhelming them, regardless of individual survival. But instead, the mass acts essentially as 50 individual fighters, politely taking their turns to fight the pros. They do some vague swarming, but the sword play is mostly one-on-one (and they say Asian cultures are so much more group-oriented than the west, huh?). Unclear if they feel too tactically unsure to stick their swords into a mess of fighting, or if there’s some sense of personal decorum (rushing would be rather impolite, wouldn’t it?), or if they seek personal glory in combating the pros mano y mano.

Whatever the reason, the pros do work on the group initially. Bam, bam, bam, the opposition goes out rapidly.

So with fewer and fewer opponents, things should get easier for the experts, right? Well . . . once the mass is thinned out, the smaller group of remaining opponents actually start working together more effectively. And after this long barrage of one-on-one(ish) fights, the pros start getting tired and sloppier (and perhaps overconfident?). It’s possible too that like insurgent fighters, the pros may have easily taken out a slew of less-able fighters at first, but then were left with the more able few at the end.

So after knocking out the vast majority of the crowd, the experts each meet their utterly unfortunate demise at the end of the match. The final master’s balloon is popped with just two opponents left!  He arches his back and lets out the soulful cry of the defeated warrior.

Crowd behavior—you slimy scoundrel—you’ve fooled us all again! And, assuming the results of this experiment are indicative of more general human behavior, we see that Hollywood has it all wrong. The heroes should heartbreakingly die, at the end of a long fight, after defeating most of the crowd unleashed upon them. Doesn’t deliver the same feel-good narrative, but at least it’s accurate.


Image: Thinkstock

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