Walking in My Shoes

How walking together can bridge social divides.

Posted Aug 07, 2020

We sing, dance, and walk together and we have done so throughout our history. From dancing cave paintings to prehistoric musical instruments, rhythmic coordination has long been a part of our everyday lives. 

Source: Johannes/Shutterstock

This has led many scholars to speculate as to the adaptive advantage such coordination may have offered our early ancestors. These speculations have included allowing individuals within groups to share perspectives and intentions, strengthening group bonds and signaling cooperation, while also allowing groups to display coalition strength to outsiders and therefore enabling them to better defend territory and attract mates. Coordinated movements cultivate and strengthen a common group mentality, which offers adaptive advantages to those who took part. But are there any benefits of us still doing so? 

Engaging in coordination leads to greater pro-sociality. Those who move in time together report greater affiliation, rapport, and trust. They are also more likely to cooperate with and help one another. For example, research shows that Stanford students who walked in step together were more likely to cooperate in economic games than those individuals who had walked out of time, even if such cooperation came at a financial cost to them. 

But what if one’s partners in these experiments weren’t other Stanford undergraduates but members of different, or perhaps even opposing, social groups? Well, some research shows that greater increases in pro-sociality following coordination are actually seen when people are coordinating with individuals they don’t already view as part of the same social group. That's when people are coordinating with people from different groups. 

If coordination can serve as a tool to foster cohesion and cooperation by signaling a cue to common group membership amongst participants, it makes sense that greater cooperation is only seen when such a common group mentality does not already exist. Indeed some work has shown that people synchronize more tightly together when they don't already view each other as common group members.  

Coordination can serve as a vehicle to reduce social distance and intergroup differences amongst people. Ss could moving in synchrony be utilised as a way to foster better relationships between opposing groups. 

A recent theoretical article discusses how our language might suggest that walking in sync is intimately intertwined with conflict resolution.

"Treading the same ground," "going around in circles," "Walk it off," "Take steps forwards," or "Get in sync." Metaphors for conflict and its resolution seem embedded in the act of walking together. We feel a connection to those who we view as being "on the same path" while we may become distant from another and "drift apart." It’s possible to heal these divides by "moving forward together," or "getting back on the same track," and we can empathize with others by "walking in their shoes." Not only are common metaphors based in concrete realties, but a metaphor's physical counterpart can also often positively influence conflict resolution.  

 Gyorgy Demko / Shutterstock
Source: Gyorgy Demko / Shutterstock

A recent first test of the hypothesis was conducted in Hungary,  where the Roma are a particularly disenfranchised group. A recent survey found 88% of Hungarian parents would not want their child interacting with a Roma playmate. The current climate towards the Roma in Hungary is best illustrated by current political dialogue. Jobbik, the second largest political party in Hungary, recently stated, “There are two ways to solve the ‘Gypsy problem’: “The first one is based on peaceful consent, the second radical exclusion … Our party wishes to offer one last chance to the destructive minority that lives here … If that agreement fails, then … the radical solution can follow.”

This study first assessed Non-Roma Hungarian nationals on their attitudes towards the Roma. One week later, they were invited to the lab and spent five minutes walking with a member of the Roma community either in or out of step. Affiliation and empathy towards the Roma individual were then taken along with any changes in initial attitudes to the Roma as a whole. 

 Annie Spratt / Shutterstock
Source: Annie Spratt / Shutterstock

Results showed that following walking in sync people rated the Roma as more likable, felt closer to them, and had more empathy for them. Those in the synchronous condition also saw an increase in empathy, and a reduction in negative implicit associations and explicit negative attitudes towards the Roma (i.e. how aggressive or lazy they viewed the Roma to be).

While promising, such an intervention still suffers from one of the biggest barriers to intergroup contact interventions—actually getting members of conflicted groups into the same physical space.

Research across a range of areas has shown that imagining doing things is similar in many ways to actually doing them. Imagining performing movements can invoke similar brain areas and patterns as actually making those movements. Imagining practicing an action (such as throwing a dart) can increase performance akin to actual practice. Imagining being in a crowd can decrease helping behaviour in line with actually being in a crowd and imagined contact can have similar pro-social effects as actual intergroup contact. A follow up study tested whether Hungarian individuals needed to actually meet and walk with a Roma person, or if they could just imagine doing so. Results showed that imagined coordination improved intergroup relations similarly to actual walking. 

While we often think of forming social connection with others through communication, there may be even more basic methods of decreasing prejudice that utilize non-verbal, movement-based mechanisms. People who move with us are, for the moment at least it seems, like us.