In his book The Smart Swarm, published by Penguin in 2010, National Geographic reporter Peter Miller uses the natural world—ants, bees, termites, birds—to examine the ancient practice of swarming. The book reveals not just the science of swarms, but what humans can learn from our smaller, earthly neighbors.
Toward the end of the book, Miller delivers a poignant anecdote about a standing ovation at Yale University’s graduation in 2009. There were 10 non-graduates recognized that morning, among them Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The university had saved Clinton for last. Miller interviewed Schelling about what it was like to be recognized before such a well-known celebrity. He’d received his honor and a respectful ovation, but when he sat in his seat to watch Clinton called to the front, he watched a swarm develop.
First, a group of law students stood and cheered for one of their own—Clinton received a J.D. from Yale Law in 1973. “And, as it caught on, almost everybody stood up,” Schelling says.
But the dynamic on stage was different. They weren’t part of the audience, after all, so would they stand? A few did, leaving Schelling to wonder: Should he? “If only three of us on the stage stand up, what does that say about us? What does that communicate to the ones that didn’t stand up?”
He eventually rose.
Miller writes later, “The same pattern of behavior that causes (standing ovations)—individuals influencing one another through a cascade of signals or actions—also has something to do with whether people send their children to public schools or private schools, cheat on their taxes, keep their dog on a leash, put on weight, pass along a rumor, vote for a particular party, or decorate their houses with Christmas lights.”