Does Rhythm = Cooperation?

We humans love rhythm. Music, dancing, clapping, singing—no matter what form it comes in, rhythmic unity is a staple of our social lives. Recently, psychologists and cognitive scientists have found that “synchrony”—as researchers call it—seems to be associated with prosocial behaviors and attitudes. If a group of people dance or even clap their hands in rhythm together, they’ll probably be more cooperative and nice to each other afterwards.

Scientists who study religion think that this effect may explain why so many religious rituals include rhythm, such as hymn singing or chanting: by syncing people up physiologically, these rhythmic rituals might engender togetherness and social unity. But does synchrony always produce such desirable outcomes? In a new report, my research team suggests that rhythm and synchrony might be exactly what you don’t want—if you’re trying to accomplish a practical goal, that is.

In 2009, two psychologists published a famous paper reporting that participating in synchronous, rhythmic actions made research subjects more cooperative. In one study, subjects either marched in rhythm around a university quad, or simply walked at their own pace. In another study, subjects moved a series of objects with their hands, either in rhythm or not. In each study, research subjects who had done synchronous movements together were more cooperative and generous in a subsequent economic game. The authors argued that synchrony might help solve the “free rider” problem (where hangers-on draw on group resources but don’t contribute anything in return) by lowering psychological boundaries between group members and making them naturally want to cooperate with others.

Lots of Cool Findings

Since then, dozens of research studies have found similar results. Participating in rhythmic synchrony makes people feel similar to one another, leading to altruistic behaviors. Dancing in rhythm not only makes people feel more closely bonded, but actually may release endorphins that increase tolerance for pain. Similarly, rowing in rhythm (as opposed to rowing together, but out of sync) increases pain tolerance among athletes. A recent study showed that synchrony both increased the sense of overlap between self and other and increased pain tolerance, but that pain tolerance alone (that is, endorphin release) predicted subsequent cooperation and trust. The prosocial and cooperative effects of synchrony extend even to children as young as 14 months.

Summing up this body of research, a recent meta-analysis of more than 40 independent studies confirmed that, across different experimental designs and contexts, synchrony had a mid-sized positive effect on prosocial behaviors. (That might not sound impressive, but for social psychology, a mid-sized effect is pretty respectable.) The meta-analysis also found smaller, but statistically reliable, effects of synchrony on social bonding and positive feelings.

Is Synchrony Equivalent to Ritual? Maybe Not

So the findings seem pretty clear: rhythmic synchrony dissolves boundaries between participants, releases pain-numbing, pleasure-causing endorphins, and makes people feel more cooperative and close to one another. Given that many religious and cultural rituals aim at building social bonds, it make sense that many rituals include synchrony. Hence, thinkers such as the late historian William McNeill have argued that religious rituals may even have their evolutionary roots in rhythm and dance.

But are religious rituals really so full of synchrony? And is synchrony always a good thing?

If you go to a mosque and watch (or take part in) one of the five daily salat prayer services, you’ll definitely see synchrony. After the end of the azan call, worshipers take part in cycles of highly synchronized kneeling, prostration, and standing, vocally guided by the imam. But you’re also likely to see people getting up out of sync, wandering around, coming in late, leaving early. Sometimes the imam doesn’t guide the prayer audibly, so the faithful are left to their own rhythms. In that case there’s often not much coordination between different people at all.

Similarly, in a Catholic Mass, periods of conspicuous group synchrony—such as hymn singing or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer—alternate with extensive times when people are doing different things. For example, during the Eucharist itself, people shuffle up and down the aisles to reach the altar, receive their wafers and wine one at a time—not simultaneously—and then wander back to their seats at their own pace. It can look positively disorganized.

Beyond the context of ritual, a whole lot of real-world, secular activities don’t feature much synchrony at all. When workers are building a skyscraper, the concrete pourers are working at a different pace relative to the crane operator, the window installers, and the steelworkers. If they all worked at one single, constant rhythm, they couldn’t do their unique, specialized jobs, and the building wouldn’t get built.

Cooperation ≠ Collaboration

My lab team wanted to explore this intersection of convergent (identical) and complementary (different but coordinated) behaviors in a novel setting. So we designed a lab experiment to test whether synchrony would affect participants’ ability to collaborate on a task that required different roles. The task was a sentence-building exercise, borrowed from a fascinating 2012 study led by psychologist Richard Ronay. In that study, subjects in groups of three each found words in three different scrambled word puzzles (one for each subject). Then they collaborated to create novel sentences as a team, with the requirement that each sentence had to include at least one word from each person’s unique list.

In the original 2012 study, teams that had been broken into leadership hierarchies performed better on this task—generated more sentences—than teams that were more equal. Why? Ronay and colleagues suggested that it was because the sentence-composition task wasn’t about mere cooperation, but rather about coordination. When a team of people is coordinating, each team member is often doing a different thing at the same time, but interdependently—just like building a high-rise. In these contexts, having a leader to orchestrate and make key decisions helps streamline the group’s interactions, leading to better outcomes.

In our study—published last month in The Journal of Cognition and Culture, and co-authored by Catherine Caldwell-Harris and Anna Stopa—we tried to create hierarchies by first having subjects (again in groups of three) each try to find as many words as possible in a grid of random letters. The person who found the most words was called the “winner.”

Then the groups participated in a rhythmic exercise, either in synchrony or out-of-sync. In the synchrony condition, all three subjects stood side-by-side, swinging a weighted pendulum in time with a single metronome placed in front of them. In the asynchrony condition, the subjects stood in an outward-facing triangle, with their own metronomes plugged into headphones. Each subject swung his or her pendulum in time with the unique rhythm playing in his or her headphones. The three different metronomes were detuned, meaning that they were playing different frequencies. So subjects in the asynchrony condition performed the same motor actions as the other subjects—swinging a weight in a set rhythm—but, unlike their counterparts in the synchrony condition, they weren’t in lockstep unison with each other.

Next, the groups of three sat down and collaborated on the sentence-composition task. This was followed by surveys asking how they felt about each other and whether they experienced different kinds of conflict.

As described above, previous studies had mostly shown that synchrony has positive effects on group dynamics. But in our study, we found the opposite. Not only did groups in the synchrony condition perform worse on the main task—they composed fewer and less-complex sentences than groups that had swung pendulums out-of-sync—but they also reported more “procedural conflict,” or interpersonal clashes about how to best succeed at the sentence task.

What’s more, groups in the synchrony condition reported feeling less in-group similarity, and a reduced sense of belonging to a tight collective, than subjects in the asynchrony condition. Overall, it almost seemed as if being in a task-oriented context reversed the normal, positive effects of synchrony.

Not So Unexpected?

Although our findings may seem to go against an established body of findings, they aren’t actually terribly counterintuitive. When people are performing a ritual, they’re not trying to do something practical. (And as I discussed last week, not being focused on a practical goal is one of the defining features of ritual.) It makes sense that it’s during times of celebration, relaxation, or ritual that we’re most likely to fall into rhythm with one another. Dancing isn’t what we do at work—it’s what we do at play. And while people certainly take religious and other forms of ritual seriously, ritual is something that usually occupies leisure time.

Other studies are also finding that synchrony and rhythmic convergence aren’t good for complex, task-oriented coordination. One study reported that, during conversation, patterns of interaction that were complementary (that is, where partners took different roles) were better for dealing with practical tasks than interactions characterized by convergence (that is, where both partners did and said the same things). Another study found that rhythmic synchrony made people less proficient at learning how to do a motor task that required taking on distinct, different roles.

However, not all studies agree. One recent paper found that subjects in pairs performed better on a collaboration task that involved back-and-forth conversation after synchrony than after non-synchronous activities.

So we’ll have to wait for the data to come in to make a final call. But meanwhile, there’s good reason to infer that, while rhythm and synchrony might make people feel more cooperative, they might not be helpful in contexts that require intricate coordination and leadership, since such tasks seem to call for differentiated practical roles, not total social unison.

Ritual and Social Unison

So, okay. Synchrony is good for uniting people and making them feel similar, but may not be as good for helping sustain differentiated social roles. Well, religious ritual is all about making participants feel united and similar, isn’t it? So it makes sense that we’d see a lot of synchrony in religious rites.

But the problem is that, as I described above, a lot of religious ritual isn’t synchronous. To go back to Catholicism again, the rituals of the Catholic church are often extremely ornate. The more ornate they are, the more different people with distinct roles take part in them – presiding priests, assistant priests, deacons, altar boys, choir members, choir directors, lay readers: the list can go on. During most parts of the service, these different people are doing distinct things, and they’re often not in synchrony.

To take another example, in Orthodox Christianity, the priests and other celebrants spend a lot of each service actually hidden from the view of the congregation, behind an iconostasis (a screen covered with icons). Inside the sanctuary, behind the iconostasis, the busy group of celebrants is often doing many different things simultaneously: censing the altar, chanting, preparing for communion, and so forth. Meanwhile, members of the laity might straggle in late, stoop to kiss an icon in the nave, and then shuffle over to the side and simply stand there for the remainder of the service.

In sum, there’s a whole lot of difference on display in Catholic and Orthodox church services. It’s not all a mass of warm unity. But even in, say, an informal Protestant service where the pastor is dressed in jeans, people take on different roles. Yes, the congregation sings songs together and may recite prayers in synchrony, but they also break into different segments with different behaviors.

As we write in our paper (emphasis not in the original),

synchrony may be well-suited to solving what Olson (1965) has called the “collective action problem,” but it may not not be ideal for solving coordinative problems, or for establishing functional organization within collectives. In this interpretation, “ritual” does not necessarily “bind” society in a homogenous way. To the contrary: many real-world rituals produce social heterogeneity, including status heterogeneity (Bell, 1992). The effects of synchrony in ritual are thus almost certain to be more complex and counterintuitive than previous research has suggested.

The fact that ritual creates and reinforces social hierarchies, roles, and distinctions is something that’s often overlooked in the contemporary cognitive and evolutionary sciences of religion (although more people are paying attention to it). Synchrony seems to be good at creating unity, and so many scholars have argued that it might help produce social collectivism, such as that seen in traditional cultures. But collectivistic cultures also tend to be highly hierarchical, with strict role distinctions and rigidly upheld ranks.

Our study highlights the need for researchers studying synchrony to pay attention to the internal structure of groups, such as ranked hierarchies or differentiated social roles—whether those groups are trying to carry out a shared task, come together in prayer, or anything in between.


This article was originally published at Patheos and has been reprinted with permission from Connor Wood.

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Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Mind and Culture