Synchrony: All Together Now

Synchronizing with those close by. A coordinated group experience can be pleasurable or even exhilarating.

By Carlin Flora, published September 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

People who "click" emotionally, whether in pairs or en masse, unwittingly exhibit balletic coordination. Friends who mirror each other's posture and speech patterns while sipping coffee together illustrate the phenomenon. So do soldiers in lockstep and orchestra players whose movements, while not identical, create a harmonious whole.

Interactional synchrony, as social psychologists call it, marks the moment when individuals morph into a cohesive group, says Frank Bernieri, chair of the department of psychology at Oregon State University. It's when silent prayers give way to chanting in a church, when football fans launch a wave across a stadium.

A coordinated group experience can be pleasurable or even exhilarating. The satisfaction may be due in part to an energy surge. Psychologists from the University of Connecticut's Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action found that two people sitting opposite each other atop tables automatically synchronized (or perfectly alternated) their swinging legs. When asked to move to their own distinct beat, subjects found the task strenuous.

Synchronizing with those close by is neurologically efficient, Bernieri speculates. If something in your visual field echoes what you'd like your body to do, the action will be easier to perform. Pushing in unison helps the boat along, of course, but it may also relieve the rowers, as every movement in sight reinforces each person's efforts.

People report feeling energized in the aftermath of a sparkling conversation as well, says Bernieri, whereas an awkward encounter can leave you completely drained. "Synchrony is flow of speech. Interrupting is hard work."