“Why Do People (Not) Cough in Concerts?” (study)

“Concert etiquette demands that audiences of classical concerts avoid inept noises such as coughs.”

… and yet, explains Prof. Dr. Andreas Wagener (of the Institute of Social Policy at Leibniz Universität, Hannover, Germany) …

“ […] coughing in concerts occurs more frequently than elsewhere, implying a widespread and intentional breach of concert etiquette.”

Leading to the question ‘Why?’ Regarding which the professor presents an analysis in his paper ‘Why Do People (Not) Cough in Concerts? : The Economics of Concert Etiquette’ (Association for Cultural Economics International, Working Paper Series, 2012). However, although the study goes into considerable detail regarding the statistical probabilities of coughing (or not) …

Prof_WagenerEven at normal frequencies, coughs are concert-immanent: Assuming that each person coughs purely randomly, independently of everybody else’s coughing and at a time-invariant rate (homogeneous Poisson process), a normal frequency of 16 coughs per day corresponds to 0.0555 coughs in a five-minute interval. The likelihood that an individual will cough during a five-minute interval then is 1 – exp(- 0.05555) = 0.05404, and the probability that nobody in an audience of N people will cough during a five-minute interval equals (1 – 0.05404)N. For a small concert hall with N=200 people (the Golden Hall in Vienna’s Musikverein or New York’s Carnegie Hall seat well above 2,000 people), this amounts to 0.0015 percent, making the undisturbed performance even of a short piece of music extremely unlikely.“

… readers considering the paper’s conclusion …

“Listening to music evokes identity, prestige, exclusion, conformity, affirmation of values and shared aesthetic experiences. In classical music, both the norms of concert courtesy (not to cough, say) and individual disobedience to these rules (the deliberate cough) reflect these social phenomena.”

… may be left with a sense that there could still be room for further work studying the phenomenon in order to arrive at a definitive, determinate, conclusively unequivocal, full and final answer to the question posed in the title – viz. ‘Why?’

Note: Sadly, the Youtube® video clip cited in the paper, in which a piano-playing Bugs Bunny shoots a member of the audience who coughs during his rendition of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, is no longer available. Can any readers point to an online clip?

Further reading: Provided by Professor James W. Pennebaker, writing in the inaugural issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1980, Perceptual and Environmental Determinants of Coughing’

“Unlike health-seeking behaviors and self-reported physical sensations, coughing is typically an immediate and observable response to the perception of a tickling or irritated throat. Several studies were conducted on coughing behavior in naturalistic classroom settings. The major findings include: (1) the larger the group, the more coughs per person;. (2) people are more likely to cough if they hear others cough; (3) the closer a person is to a cougher, the greater the probability that they will also emit a cough; (4) coughing varies as a function of external stimulus demands (i.e., when subjects viewed a movie that had previously been rated for its interest value every 30 seconds, subjects were more likely to cough during the uninteresting portions); and (5) high instructor evaluations were related to fewer coughs during lectures. Perceptual, physiological, and depth of processing issues as related to internal sensations arc discussed.”