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People forgot how to act in public

Why concertgoers keep throwing things at celebrities and no one can shut up at the movies.

Pink, performing on stage in London, where a fan handed her their mother’s ashes.
Burak Cingi/Redferns
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Some people shouldn’t be out in public right now.

Movie theaters have become a lawless land where some moviegoers have no reservations about using their phones after films have started. Sometimes it’s not just a glance at the time, but full-on social media scrolls and posting. In New York City, Broadway audiences are drunk, rowdy, and apparently leaving feces in the aisles of theaters. This summer at various concerts, Albanian pop star Bebe Rexha was beaned in the face, fellow pop princess Ava Max was slapped by a stage rusher, aerial-enthusiast Pink was handed someone’s mother’s ashes, fans interrupted country singer Miranda Lambert’s intimate show with an impromptu photo shoot, and a “fan” threw water on rapper Cardi B. (Cardi responded by chucking her microphone at her water-flinger.)

Large-scale, in-person events are down bad.

According to experts I spoke to, this rash of bad behavior can probably be traced to the pandemic shutdowns of 2020. During the lockdowns, we didn’t have large-scale social events and, no doubt, some people have sort of forgotten how to act now that they’re back.

But there’s also something deeper here, reflected in our protectiveness over these spaces and what they mean to us. Going to an in-person entertainment event is about more than just the movie, play, or pop star on display. These events are times when we experience important social connections, a phenomenon that happens so naturally that we don’t think about what these events mean to us — until someone really screws them up.

The “collective effervescence” of live events is something humans crave, whether they know it or not

It might seem obvious why acting out in public is deeply annoying, but it’s important to understand how much these large social events mean to humans. When someone makes a scene in public at a group event, we’re disturbed in large part because these gatherings are extremely important to our intellectual and emotional selves.

Humans are incredibly social creatures, and these events are moments of highly pleasurable social connections — what Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo, calls “collective effervescence.” When we buy a ticket to a Broadway musical, or Barbie, or a Carly Rae Jepsen show, we’re purchasing the performance but we’re also buying that electric feeling of a crowd of humans appreciating the same thing.

“Collective effervescence is the way we feel connected when we’re in a crowd of other people, even if we don’t know them. When we’re all focused on a concert or a play or a movie, we feel a sense of social connection and it makes us feel really good,” Gabriel, who studies social behavior, told Vox.

Gabriel explained that the strength or weakness of social connections — the relationships we have with friends, romantic partners, acquaintances, and family — are one of the greatest predictors of depression, anxiety, suicide when it comes to our mental health, and wellness when it comes to physical health too.

The same kind of positive benefits can come from people we don’t know the community but feel connected to it or part of it.

When we get home from a play, movie, or concert, our first thought probably isn’t to quantify the collective effervescence of whatever art we just witnessed. I know I’m usually thinking about whether whatever I saw was “good.” Gabriel insists that part of the “good” isn’t just the art or artist, but the general feeling of the people around us and the social connections being made. We pick up on the laughter, cheers, smiles, and vibes and it nourishes us.

“That rush is freaking magic to humans. It feels so good to us and we are so driven by that feeling of connection to other people,” Gabriel said. “That gives us such a high. Some research suggests that kind of high can stick with us to some degree for as much as a year afterward.”

The pandemic screwed up the way we behave at concerts and movie theaters

Since humans thrive on collective effervescence, it was a complete shock to our systems in 2020 when the pandemic, seemingly overnight, obliterated these large social gatherings. Finding that in-person collective effervescence became impossible.

At the same time, we began finding social connections online, primarily on social media. We learned to operate and find these social bonds in different ways. An example: My colleague Rani Molla reported that during the pandemic, users posted more on social media platforms like Instagram — sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed. We also figured out ways to see concerts, have dance parties, and watch movies with people online in the comfort of our own homes. While we carved out a new way to be social, our social skills suffered.

“Among younger people, I have noticed, on average, poorer social skills,” Ryan Sultan, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, told Vox. He explained that while there aren’t yet extensive studies on people’s behaviors in movie theaters and concerts, he does think the lockdown’s impact on social gatherings has affected our social skills, such as conversation and general awareness. “Having a period of time not in school — which is the primary way that we are socialized — has impacted academic performance, and I’m sure it has impacted social skills.”

Sultan explained that, throughout history, large social gatherings have always been integral to human development. “Humans evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to exist in tribes and bands of around 100 people,” Sultan said. “We’d have close relationships with those people. We’d learn from them, modeling behavior, receiving direct and indirect feedback on what are next-level appropriate social skills. Our life was a constant social gathering.”

The pendulum swing from gathering in real life to being relegated to social media to now, in 2023, coming back to real-life events may explain why some people are being disruptive and not fully comprehending the impact they’re having on their fellow audience members. They’re using the modes of social connection they got accustomed to — posting a video from a movie theater, scrolling through social media during a Broadway play, or treating a concert like a performance they’re watching from home — in a setting that’s inappropriate. In some cases, it’s an upsettingly tangible example of the self-interested behavior we’ve come to call “main character syndrome,” wherein a person seems to believe that everything that happens around them only contributes to their own story.

“Because we got out of practice on it, people don’t realize what they’re missing by not just immersing themselves in this social event. So people are trying to pull in what they’re more used to, which is social media, because they don’t realize that they’re missing something,” Gabriel said. “People aren’t thinking, ‘I want to go see Taylor Swift because I want to feel connected to all those other people there.’ They think about Taylor, but really, a big motivation is actually being a part of this enormous event.”

Granted, some of this behavior is violent or bizarre — like the fans who, respectively, threw a phone at Bebe Rexha and gave Pink their mother’s cremated ashes. These are extreme examples of this phenomenon, an extreme version of selfishness. That said, these disruptions not only prevent said disruptor from making social bonds, but they’re also affecting other people.

“When people near you are doing something different, it pulls your attention away. And you don’t feel as if everyone is in this moment,” Gabriel said.

We’ll probably stop behaving like animals in public ... eventually

So why are some people so willing to harsh everyone else’s good time by scrolling through TikTok or taking video of a movie? “I feel like maybe people aren’t realizing how big of an asshole they are,” said Tim League, the founder of the national movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse.

“Movie theaters are dark by design. Any light, even if you think you’re hiding it, just becomes this beacon, and it’s going to distract anyone in a 10-foot radius around you, if not more if it’s stadium seating. Your eyes will drift down to the person whose light is on and it takes you out of the moment,” League continued. “And it’s so fucking rude and it’s just so selfish.”

League doesn’t deny that he, like a lot of us in the general population, is addicted to his phone. But he views movies as “therapy from your phone,” a set, mandated time away from our devices and all their apps. “You don’t fully dissolve into a story or appreciate the emotional charge you would if you’re thinking about how you’re going to post something funny on TikTok,” he said.

At League’s Alamo Drafthouse, there’s a strict no-talking, no-texting rule. If an audience member at an Alamo violates this sacred credo, their fellow moviegoers can anonymously report the rule-breaker. If the disruptor is still on their phone after warnings, they’ll be asked to leave the theater. Alamo’s no-talking rule, which went into effect three months after Alamo began in 1997, was created to prevent audience members from answering their phones or sending text messages, but also cut off the rise of TikTok and social media scrolling and posting at the pass. League said that, aside from one report of “rowdiness” at a recent Barbie screening, Alamo hasn’t seen a demonstrable uptick in disruptive phone use.

“Your policies are always going to fail to a certain extent,” League said, but he said it was an opportunity to restrengthen and reevaluate the rules. “Okay, so maybe you got some new people that don’t understand the policy, let’s get in there and get it right.”

For moviegoers who don’t have an Alamo near them and want to be good audience members, he has a simple rule: “Don’t be rude. Don’t be a jerk at the movies, but also through life: Just try not to be a jerk. And when you catch yourself being one, just realize you can do better. And turn off your goddamn phone during the movie.”

For those like League who are a bit dismayed at the turn of public bad behavior, there is some hope that it’ll iron itself out. Gabriel is hopeful that this current spate of annoying antics will subside as we get more exposure to large social events. We’re still relearning our social behaviors, Gabriel said, and as more time passes, people will eventually figure out what’s acceptable and what’s disruptive.

She also is hopeful because of another important factor: shame.

Because humans are extremely social beings and value social connections (and our collective effervescence), we are also deeply attuned to the attitudes of the people around us. Generally, humans are very good at negatively communicating our displeasure at inappropriate behavior; also generally, humans don’t like to be shamed.

“People will get the message from other folks that their behavior is not okay. Some people will get mocked eventually — in person or online,” Gabriel said. “A deep sigh is always good. Side-eye can be really helpful. Or you know, if somebody posts something [e.g. a video filmed during a movie], give them a good-natured ribbing about that. I think that people will get that message.”

Here’s hoping they won’t have to open TikTok during a movie or ruin a concert to find it.

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