Two sides of synchrony

Humans often engage in synchrony (as do mating birds and other animals). We sing, chant, dance, march together. We have special work songs to coordinate movement. Synchrony is enjoyable. It also takes some of our autonomy and gives it to the others that we are in sync with. This can be good and bad depending on the group and its aims. And it seems to have a very powerful effect on consciousness – almost like a high.


We can see the usefulness of work songs. The coordination make everyone’s efforts more effective. There is a feeling that you are not pulling alone and that whatever your effort is, it is not being wasted. I would guess that anyone not putting in effort when it was rhythmic would be easy to spot and so the synchrony might also be an enforcer of cooperation.


Wiltermuth and Heath in their 2009 paper showed that synchronous movement or singing does indeed enhance a group identity and produced behaviour that was more group oriented even at the individuals expense.

Taken together, these studies suggest that acting in synchrony with others can lead people to cooperate with group members. While the studies do not eliminate the possibility that muscular bonding and collective effervescence may, under the right conditions, strengthen the effects of synchrony on cooperation, our results show that synchronous action need not entail muscular bonding or instill collective effervescence to create a willingness to cooperate. Our results suggest that cultural practices involving synchrony (e.g., music, dance, and marching) may enable groups to mitigate the free-rider problem and more successfully coordinate in taking potentially costly social action. Synchrony rituals may have therefore endowed some cultural groups with an advantage in societal evolution, leading some groups to survive where others have failed .


Cooperating in positive group activities is one side but the other negative side is the rejection of people outside the group. Synchrony is used in war dances and modern military displays. While sports teams are competing on the field, their fans are competing in the stands in shows of synchrony.


Wiltermuth in his 2012 paper showed the aggressive results of synchrony. His studies indicate that synchronous activities may be used to influence leader-follower relations. Marching and chanting are used rallies to influence people across the world and the centuries. Think Hitler.

An experiment demonstrates that cultural practices involving physical synchrony can emotionally bind people together, making those people more likely to comply with others’ requests to engage in aggressive behavior. Participants who acted in synchrony with a confederate were more likely than were participants in the asynchronous and control conditions to comply with the confederate’s request to administer a noise blast to another group of participants. Increased feelings of emotional connection with the confederate mediated the relationship between synchrony and heightened compliance with the request to engage in aggressive behavior.


Do we have any protection against being lead astray by synchrony? Maybe we have. Many people have a natural loner rather than joiner character which makes them suspicious of group displays. The first part of getting in sync is to mimic others. It seems we naturally mimic those we are with and do not realize we do it. But only if we share goals with the others. That is a nice little safety catch!


Ondobaka and others showed this in their 2011 paper.

Observing the movements of another person influences the observer’s intention to execute similar movements. However, little is known about how action intentions formed prior to movement planning influence this effect. In the experiment reported here, we manipulated the congruency of movement intentions and action intentions in a pair of jointly acting individuals (i.e., a participant paired with a confederate coactor) and investigated how congruency influenced performance. Overall, participants initiated actions faster when they had the same action intention as the coactor (i.e., when participants and the coactor were pursuing the same conceptual goal). Participants’ responses were also faster when their and the coactor’s movement intentions were directed to the same spatial location, but only when participants had the same action intention as the coactor. These findings suggest that observers use the same representation to implement their own action intentions that they use to infer other people’s action intentions and also that a dynamic, multitiered intentional mechanism is involved in the processing of other people’s actions.


This reminds me a bit of oxytocin – it creates empathy to the in-group and increasing xenophobia for the out-group. It is great in the family and small community but a problem in the bigger world.


So when you become consciously aware of that nice, warm part-of-group feeling, take a moment to look at the group’s aims, before joining in the song and dance.

Wiltermuth, S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation Psychological Science, 20 (1), 1-5 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x

Ondobaka, S., de Lange, F., Newman-Norlund, R., Wiemers, M., & Bekkering, H. (2011). Interplay Between Action and Movement Intentions During Social Interaction Psychological Science, 23 (1), 30-35 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611424163

Wiltermuth, S. (2012). Synchronous activity boosts compliance with requests to aggress Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (1), 453-456 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.10.007

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