Pedestrians follow the herd instinct when crossing the road

Nov 16, 2010 by Lin Edwards report

( -- A Leeds University study has discovered pedestrians are likely to act like a herd when crossing roads, blindly following other pedestrians.

The study was led by Dr Jolyon Faria who was at Leeds University in the UK but has now relocated to Princeton University in the US. Dr Faria said the study aimed to find out if the of pedestrians crossing a busy and dangerous road was affected by the behavior of people on either side of them.

The study analyzed the behavior of 365 people at a busy crossing in Leeds during peak traffic periods over three days. The pedestrian crossing was chosen because it was especially busy and one at which pedestrians often went against the Don’t Walk light, placing themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. Computer simulations were also used to determine what might happen if pedestrians ignored the actions of those around them.

The study, published in Behavioural Ecology and Planet Earth Online revealed that people are 1.5-2.5 times more likely to cross a busy road if the pedestrian next to them sets off first, and males were more likely to follow other than females.

Dr Faria said the behavior could be because people feel safer when making a dangerous crossing with others. He speculated the gender difference may be because women are more conscious of their surroundings than men, who are more willing to risk following someone else.

The behavior may have originated in our evolutionary past, since herding behavior is common in many species. For example, wildebeest wait nervously on river banks until one is brave enough to go in first, after which all the follows. In their case the behavior makes sense because of the likelihood of crocodile attacks. Similarly, penguins wait on the edge of ice floes until one of them is brave enough to dive in and face attack from leopard seals.

Dr Faria said he hoped the study might encourage people to think twice before blindly following others onto the road, and said it also adds to our understanding of herding, flocking and shoaling behaviors.

Explore further: Researchers urge early help for kindergarten students with low self-regulation

More information: Collective behavior in road crossing pedestrians: the role of social information, Behavioral Ecology (2010) 21 (6): 1236-1242. doi:10.1093/beheco/arq141

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User comments : 7

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5 / 5 (4) Nov 16, 2010
Uh, the simple explanation is that one person crossing through a dont walk is dangerous because they are harder to see. You have 4 or more people crossing and you can see this group a lot better.
3 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2010
Uh, the simple explanation is that one person crossing through a dont walk is dangerous because they are harder to see. You have 4 or more people crossing and you can see this group a lot better.

Exactly. I do this all the time. I'm not looking at the lights but see others cross and I assume they have seen the light so I follow them
5 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2010
everyone does this -- here is a thought experiment

when stopped at a light a few cars back --- if everyone starts to go forward do you actually look at the light??? -- most people do not

crossing the street is something you think about as a child and once you have it figured out you rarely thing about it anymore, it becomes a reaction based on the situation -- you cross if a cop or someone of authority waves you through regardless of whether it looks like oncoming traffic is going to stop --

in a group of 2 - 5 normally one person is looking to the side - or apologizes to the car if they see the group is in the wrong.

In groups larger than 5 no one cares because the group is big enough to see from far away and lets face it pedestrians have the right of way -- whether or not its legal for them to be there.
not rated yet Nov 16, 2010
Uh, the simple explanation is that one person crossing through a dont walk is dangerous because they are harder to see. You have 4 or more people crossing and you can see this group a lot better.

Right, analyzing behavior says nothing about motivation. I know my motivation would be the above. I doubt if cattle would have that motivation.

As far as the other comment, what we do at a stop light isn't the same as crossing a street. If all the cars ahead of you start moving you can be pretty sure the light turned. I won't blindly follow a group crossing a street.
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 16, 2010
I have to be very careful due to this aspect of herd mentality. I've nearly killed people before. I have no problem stepping out into cross traffic and weaving my way between the cars.

However..people sometimes step out behind me..and they are DEFINITELY not paying attention. And I'm cutting it so close that that there is no room unless the person is traveling RIGHT beside me.

So I have to watch for people who try to cross behind me, and take care ---for them as well. Or, simply not cross ...and allow the sleepwalkers to live just a little bit longer.

Silly humans!
not rated yet Nov 16, 2010
I live in the woods deep in the Appalachian Mountains, I would have to wait a while before I saw a car. I have seen this while hiking though, there's not much hesitation to cross a river after the first person starts to cross.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2010
This study might be more convincing if the occasional pedestrian was taken by a crocodile or leopard seal...