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. 

To read more, head to Patheos.