Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go! Synchrony and Team-Building

Does synchronized behavior create cooperation?

How do you build a team? In the army, new recruits learn to march in formation. Camps often teach a camp song that campers sing together at the top of their lungs around campfires. Religious groups have elaborate group rituals involving singing, chanting, and sometimes moving in unison. Crowds at sporting events will often cheer together at key moments. Is there something to this synchronized behavior that creates a sense of a team?

This question was explored by Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath in research reported in the January, 2009 issue of Psychological Science. They had small groups of people perform activities together, and varied whether they performed those activities in unison. Then, they had people play games in which people could choose to cooperate with each other or compete against each other.

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They used a range of different activities. In one study, small groups walked across a college campus together, but either walked in step with each other, or at their own pace. In another study, a small group of participants sat in a room and listened to a song over headphones. Some groups just listened. Some groups sang the song aloud as it played over the headphones so that the entire group was singing together. Some groups sang aloud, but the song was played at a different tempo for each person, so that they were all singing, but not together.

The cooperation games that people played were made to look like they were part of an unrelated study. Participants were given a few questions after doing the first set of activities, and then a second experimenter came in, and described the new study. Nonetheless, people were systematically more likely to cooperate with each other in these games if they had moved or sung in unison with their teammates than if they had not. People singing the song at different tempos acted just like the group that didn't sing at all. The synchronized movements also increased people's sense that they belonged to a common group with the other people in the study.

This finding highlights the importance of our bodily experience in our social interactions. It is well-known that when people are engaged in a conversation, they tend to match each other in many ways. For example, people who are conversing tend to match the pitch of their voices, the speed they talk, and even the number of hand gestures they make while communicating. So, participating in a cooperative task can synchronize people's bodies.

Apparently, it goes the other way as well. Getting people to synchronize their body movements leads to cooperative behavior. I wonder if I can get my kids to march in step around the house...

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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