Psychologists at UC-Berkeley and the University of Denver have discovered that we can read a crowd in a subliminal fraction of a second—and the larger the crowd, the clearer the message:
After viewing a crowd for only one-fifth of a second, participants were asked to estimate where the group was looking, on average, by moving the pupils on a blank face using the right and left arrows on a keyboard. If ensemble coding was at work, Sweeny and Whitney hypothesized, participants’ gaze estimates should be better when more information (i.e., more faces) is available.
The data showed that participants’ gaze estimates for groups incorporated information from multiple gazes in the crowd, in support of the researchers’ hypothesis.
The neurological process behind this is called ensemble coding (not to be confused with neuronal ensemble coding, which is a cognitive science concept), and it’s the same principle that lets us quickly process any other group of individual things. If we take the old line “s/he can’t see the forest for the trees” literally, it’s a reference to the subject’s inability to ensemble code.
We don’t really know how ensemble coding works just yet, but what’s remarkable about the rapid speed with which it takes place is that it implies we are constantly bombarded with subliminal messages from the people around us. This gives a strong scientific basis to the idea of getting a contact high from being in a crowd of happy people, feeling invigorated and emboldened by participating in a protest, feeling drained by being in a crowd of unhappy people, or feeling more certain about our religious beliefs after attending a service; although other factors are no doubt at work in each case, all of these effects can hypothetically be explained by subliminal ensemble coding. And this process will affect us just as strongly on a subconscious level whether we consider ourselves nonconformists or not.