To like each other, sing and dance in synchrony

For the How to Run a Suc­cess­ful Less Wrong Meetup book­let, I’m look­ing for in­for­ma­tion about how to bet­ter build a so­cial group and foster a feel­ing of com­mu­nity. Since this bit is prob­a­bly of gen­eral in­ter­est, I’m post­ing it here.

If you want to make the mem­bers of the group like each other more and feel more like a group, syn­chro­nized ac­tions may be one of the eas­iest ways of achiev­ing this goal. An­thro­pol­o­gists have long known the com­mu­nity-build­ing effect of danc­ing:

As the dancer loses him­self in the dance, as he be­comes ab­sorbed in the unified com­mu­nity, he reaches a state of ela­tion in which he feels him­self filled with an en­ergy of force im­mensely be­yond his or­di­nary state . . . find­ing him­self in com­plete and ec­static har­mony with all the fel­low-mem­bers of his com­mu­nity, ex­pe­riences a great in­crease in his feel­ings of amity and at­tach­ment to­wards them. (Rad­cliffe-Brown 1933/​1948, quoted in Ke­se­bir 2011)

Ar­mies around the world uti­lize the same effect to foster a feel­ing of uni­son through re­peated drills:

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 rit­ual. (McNeill 1995, quoted in Ke­se­bir 2011)

Wilter­muth & Heath (2009) sum­ma­rize some of the re­search on the topic:

The idea that syn­chronous move­ment im­proves group co­he­sion has old roots. As his­to­rian William H. McNeill sug­gests, armies, churches, and com­mu­ni­ties may have all benefited, in­ten­tion­ally or un­in­ten­tion­ally, from cul­tural prac­tices that draw on ‘‘mus­cu­lar bond­ing,’’ or phys­i­cal syn­chrony, to solid­ify ties be­tween mem­bers (McNeill, 1995). This phys­i­cal syn­chrony, which oc­curs when peo­ple move in time with one an­other, has been ar­gued to pro­duce pos­i­tive emo­tions that weaken the bound­aries be­tween the self and the group (Ehren­re­ich, 2006; Han­nah, 1977), lead­ing to feel­ings of col­lec­tive efferves­cence that en­able groups to re­main co­he­sive (Durkheim, 1915/​1965; Haidt, Seder, & Ke­se­bir, in press; Turner, 1969/​1995). An­daman Is­lan­ders have been said to be­come ‘‘ab­sorbed in the unified com­mu­nity’’ through dance (Rad­cliffe-Brown, 1922, p. 252). Similar ob­ser­va­tions have been made of Car­ni­val rev­el­ers (Ehren­re­ich, 2006), and ravers danc­ing to beat-heavy mu­sic (Olave­son, 2004). More­over, Haidt et al. (in press) have ar­gued that peo­ple must oc­ca­sion­ally lose them­selves in a larger so­cial or­ganism to achieve the high­est lev­els of in­di­vi­d­ual well-be­ing.

Some re­cent find­ings on the topic in­clude:

Wilter­muth & Heath (2009): Syn­chronous ac­tivity in the form of walk­ing around a cam­pus in step causes peo­ple to be more likely to make de­ci­sions re­quiring trust and to self-re­port stronger feel­ings of trust and con­nect­ed­ness with oth­ers. Sing­ing in syn­chrony, even if the song is an out-group an­them (“O Canada”, when the sub­jects were USA res­i­dents), causes more trust and and greater feel­ings of be­ing on the same team, as well as an in­creased will­ing­ness to co­op­er­ate in a pub­lic goods game.

Kirschner & To­masello (2010): “Given that in tra­di­tional cul­tures mu­sic mak­ing and danc­ing are of­ten in­te­gral parts of im­por­tant group cer­e­monies such as ini­ti­a­tion rites, wed­dings or prepa­ra­tions for bat­tle, one hy­poth­e­sis is that mu­sic evolved into a tool that fosters so­cial bond­ing and group co­he­sion, ul­ti­mately in­creas­ing proso­cial in­group be­hav­ior and co­op­er­a­tion. Here we provide sup­port for this hy­poth­e­sis by show­ing that joint mu­sic mak­ing among 4-year-old chil­dren in­creases sub­se­quent spon­ta­neous co­op­er­a­tive and helpful be­hav­ior, rel­a­tive to a care­fully matched con­trol con­di­tion with the same level of so­cial and lin­guis­tic in­ter­ac­tion but no mu­sic.”

Valdes­olo, Ouyang & DeSteno (2010): Syn­chronous rock­ing in­creases per­cep­tions of similar­ity and con­nect­ed­ness. The sub­jects were given the task of hold­ing the op­po­site ends of a 12 × 14 wooden labyrinth with both hands and guid­ing a steel ball through it to­gether. The sub­jects in the syn­chronous rock­ing con­di­tion performed bet­ter than the sub­jects in the asyn­chronous rock­ing con­di­tion.

Valdes­olo & DeSteno (2011): Sub­jects who are told to tap the beats they hear in an au­dio clip, and are paired with a con­fed­er­ate who has been in­structed to syn­chro­nize his tap­ping with the par­ti­ci­pant’s, tend to find like the con­fed­er­ate more and con­sider him more similar to them­selves. The con­fed­er­ate be­ing as­signed an un­fair task then evokes more feel­ings of com­pas­sion, and the sub­jects are more likely to help him, even at a cost to them­selves.

The im­pli­ca­tion for meetup groups, as well as any other groups that might want to make their mem­bers like each other more, seems clear: spend some time singing and danc­ing to­gether, pos­si­bly in the form of drink­ing songs if peo­ple are too self-con­scious to sing while sober. Just make sure that any non-drinkers don’t feel ex­cluded. If all else fails, you can always march around the city while chant­ing “doom doom DOOM DOOM”. (If any­body asks, you can say that you’re test­ing a sci­en­tific hy­poth­e­sis about group bond­ing, and ask if they’d want to join in.)


Ke­se­bir, S. (2011) The Su­per­or­ganism Ac­count of Hu­man So­cial­ity: How and When Hu­man Groups Are Like Bee­hives (un­gated ver­sion). Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Re­view.

Kirch­ner, S. & To­masello, M. (2010) Joint mu­sic mak­ing pro­motes proso­cial be­hav­ior in 4-year-old chil­dren. Evolu­tion and Hu­man Be­hav­ior 31, 354–364.

McNeill, W.H. (1995) Keep­ing to­gether in time: Dance and drill in hu­man his­tory. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Univer­sity Press.

Rad­cliffe-Brown, A. R. (1948) The An­daman Is­lan­ders. Glen­coe, IL: Free Press.

Valdes­olo, P. & DeSteno, D. (2011) Syn­chrony and the So­cial Tun­ing of Com­pas­sion. Emo­tion, vol. 11, no. 2, 262–266.

Valdes­olo, P. & Ouyang, J. & DeSteno, D. (2010) The rhythm of joint ac­tion: Syn­chrony pro­motes co­op­er­a­tive abil­ity. Jour­nal of Ex­per­i­men­tal So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, vol. 46, no. 4, 693–695.

Wilter­muth, S.S. & Heath, C. (2009): Syn­chrony and Co­op­er­a­tion. Psy­cholog­i­cal Science, vol. 20, no. 1.