For a long time scholars have speculated that coordinated activities between individuals – dancing, singing, walking, and exercising – increases both cooperation and a sense of group cohesion. As early as 1915, sociologist Emile Durkheim spoke of “collective effervescence”, a type of ecstatic energy that is produced by group rituals. Similarly, the historian William McNeill (1995), reflecting on his own military experience during WWII, wrote about the bonding effects that synchronous movement had on his unit:
Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective rituals.
More recently, the synchronicity thesis has been given empirical support from Stanford University psychologists Scott S. Wiltermuth and Chip Heath. In their study, consisting of three experiments, they demonstrated that synchronous activity actually causes people to cooperate and increases group attachment.
In the first experiment, they had a few groups walk around campus – one group walked normally while the other walked in-step. After this subjects were asked to play the “weak-link” coordination game – where greater coordination increases payoff. The next two studies involved subjects listening to music with headphones, with some groups instructed to sing along and move plastic cups to the music in unison and others in an asynchronous manner. The final experiment had volunteers play a public-goods game: were collaboration conflicts with personal gain.
The results confirmed the hypothesis that synchronicity leads to greater cooperation and social attachment. On the whole there was significantly more cooperation in the synchronous than the asynchronous group, even when the individuals had incentives to “free ride” and not cooperate.
Handle with care: Getting people to cooperate is to some degree the essence of conflict resolution, however, practitioners should employ this knowledge with caution. A mere glance at the way in which political/military/religious movements have used synchronous activity reminds us that collective action isn’t always a tool for good. Furthermore, studies have shown that such actions significantly influence leader-follower relations: making people more susceptible to the influence of leaders. For a practice that depends on voluntary associations, the subtle manipulation of parties raises important ethical issues. Moreover, none of these studies were conducted on people in conflict. That said, it would be fascinating to see what effects (if any) synchronous activity would have on conflict resolution efforts.
Also published in ICCCR.