Learning from Fish Could Prevent Crowd Panic

The whole theory is based on a natural principle, Krause says. As soon as 5 percent of a group of animals behaves in a certain way, the majority will imitate this behavior too. In this sense, Krause was able to control a whole school of fish in an aquarium, by remotely controlling a specific group of robotic fish. The real fish followed the electronic fish even to places they had previously never swum to; near to a predator for example. If the number of electronic fish was reduced, however, few if any fish followed their remote-controlled counterparts.

French researcher Marie-Hélène Pillot, who works at the University of Toulouse, observed similar behavior in herds of sheep. She taught one sheep to respond to a whistle and come to her. The single trained lamb was then able to "steer" other lambs in a small herd to do the same. "If one sheep falls off a cliff, all the others will follow suit," her colleague Mehdi Moussaid jokes -- but in reality there is more than a touch of truth to this. Moussaid believes that the work of shepherds could be made easier if sheep were controlled in this manner.

Rejection, Attraction and Imitation

Researchers have explained this intuitive behavioral pattern through three basic principles: Rejection, attraction and imitation determine how schools of fish and flocks of bird behave. The animals position themselves equidistantly from each other without touching, and all face the same direction.

Humans organize themselves along the same principles: they stand close to each other without touching and all walk in the same direction, at a steady pace. "This similarity between humans and animals is astounding," Krause says. He does, however, warn against making generalizations.

Human behavior, unlike animal behavior, is also shaped by cultural factors, Moussaid found by doing research at the Swiss Federal Institute of technology in Zurich with biologist Dirk Helbing. He managed to prove that 80 percent of Europeans intuitively walk on the right-hand side of the road. That's the reason why pedestrians don't bump into each other on overcrowded streets. In Asia, on the other hand, pedestrians intuitively favor the left-hand side. "This preference is a culturally acquired phenomenon," Moussaid explains, so fear not: if you were to emigrate to China, you would soon get used to the change.

Wire reports with reporting by Susanne Donner

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