How Moving Together Binds Us Together

The social effects of moving in sync with others.

Posted Apr 05, 2020

Synchrony is the process of things moving together in time and it is all around us. It can be observed in the contractions of the ventricles of a healthy heart, to the coordinated light displays of fireflies. In the 17th century, Christian Huygens observed how given the right environment, pendulums would spontaneously synchronise their swinging. Today we still wonder at the coordinated displays of flocking in the skies and schooling in the seas. As Steven Strogatz pointed out in his book Sync, synchrony is everywhere, as if the universe has an eerie yearning for order.

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But what does any of this have to do with psychology? Well, we too regularly synchronise our behaviours with one another. Our speech, gestures, even our neuronal patterns can all spontaneously align in time with those around us. We also intentionally synchronise when we sing, dance and even walk with one another in coordinated ways. In fact, every known culture engages in synchronous actions, and musical artifacts suggest that rhythmic displays in our species date back over 40,000 years (McNeill, 1997).

As it turns out, moving together in time can have a variety of effects on our social world. One of the first psychological studies of this phenomenon showed that synchronously singing together led individuals to be more trusting and more cooperative towards each other (Anshell & Kipper, 1988). Probably the most famous example comes from Wiltermuth & Heath (2009) who showed that synchronously walking, or singing and waving cups together led to greater cooperation among people in a subsequent economic game, even when that cooperation came at a real financial sacrifice to those involved. Other work from Wiltermuth (2012 a, b) has shown that synchrony doesn’t just promote cooperation, but it also has a dark side, leading individuals to be more willing to commit destructive and aggressive acts (such as killing bugs, or subjecting other people to loud noises) if requests come from people they’ve previously coordinated with.

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Source: Shutterstock

In fact, moving in time with people has been shown to have a whole host of socio-cognitive consequences, from affecting how much we like our co-actors, to how close we feel to them, to how much we are willing to help them, to how good our memories are for them, and how successful we will be at other kinds of joint action. Some of these effects have even been shown in infants as young as 14 months of age.

What’s more, we don’t even have to move ourselves to feel coordination’s consequences. How coordinated a collection of individual’s movements are can also affect how likely we are to see those individuals as a cohesive group, and how formidable we perceive that group to be. For an in-depth review of all these findings discussed here, see our review (Cross, Turgeon & Atherton, 2019).

Synchrony can have powerful effects both for individuals and for society. Think for instance about how Hitler’s army marching in synchronous goose steps instilled obedience in his followers and fear in his enemies by demonstrating Germany’s unity. The youngsters participating in the Pyongyang games at the behest of Kim Jung Un serve the same purpose; they send a message of a tightly controlled populace whose expertise lies in their ability to unite and serve a common purpose.

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Source: Shutterstock

In his book Keeping Together in Time, historian William McNeil wrote about his own experiences in drill and how it leads to a loss of the self, a swelling out and a becoming part of something bigger than the individual. In this way, synchrony can also unify individuals towards accepting an organisation, structure or even a higher power. Many places of worship from ancient to modern times have relied on synchronized ritual to foster affective experience, strengthen social ties, and impart spiritual beliefs. The sign of the cross given by congregants at specific points of the Catholic mass, the prayers that ring out in unison throughout mosques, and the synchronized dance steps performed by participants in a Hindu, Punjabi or Gujarati wedding deliver a sense of belonging. Such rituals also allow participants to experience the passage of time, a sense that one is part of something much older and ‘greater’ than oneself. 

In this way, synchrony is one example of the nonverbal, embodied, often unidentifiable ways that we understand our world, and our place within it. Through perceiving the ways we and others move together in time we form opinions that shape the way we think about the world and those in it. By being more aware of these perceptions, we can be reminded when we see a flock of birds diving together into the water how we are all social creatures vying for a place within a rhythmic, relational, reality.

References

Anshel, A., & Kipper, D. A. (1988). The influence of group singing on trust and cooperation. Journal of Music Therapy, 25(3), 145-155.

Cross, L., Turgeon, M., & Atherton, G. (2019). How moving together binds us together: The social consequences of interpersonal entrainment and group processes. Open Psychology, 1(1), 273-302.

McNeill, W. H. (1997). Keeping together in time. Harvard University Press.

Miles, L. K., Lumsden, J., Richardson, M. J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Do birds of a feather move together? Group membership and behavioral synchrony. Experimental brain research, 211(3-4), 495-503.

Strogatz, S. (2003). Sync: The emerging science of spontaneous order. London: Penguin books.

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological science, 20(1), 1-5.

Wiltermuth, S. (2012a). Synchrony and destructive obedience. Social Influence, 7(2), 78-89.

Wiltermuth, S. (2012b). Synchronous activity boosts compliance with requests to aggress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 453-456.