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What is the word to describe the phenomenon where at first nobody has the intension to clap (after a performance, lecture, etc). But suddenly one person starts clapping loudly, breaking the silence, and there goes the applause! Everyone starts clapping!

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Perhaps catalysis as a back formation (in this figurative context) from catalyst. – Robusto Mar 14 '13 at 14:58
You could say everyone follows suit. – J.R. Mar 14 '13 at 15:31
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Chain reaction (“A series of events, each one causing the next”) is the now-somewhat-cliched term often used for that phenomenon.

Some slightly-less-relevant terms include nucleation, trigger, seed (senses 5 or 6), goad, stimulus, and aforementioned catalysis.

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