Amherst College Study Finds That Getting in Sync Hones Individual Abilities and Cooperation

April 14, 2010                       

AMHERST, Mass.—Groups who move together in time during an exercise (such as soldiers marching, sports teams warming up for a game or warriors performing a ritualistic dance prior to a hunt) don’t just strengthen their relationships with one another—they actually sharpen their individual skills and perform better as a unit as a result, according to new research conducted by Amherst College psychology professor Piercarlo Valdesolo; his student, Amherst senior Jennifer Ouyang; and Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno. The trio’s findings, which have been published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and featured on the Discovery Channel Canada’s “Daily Planet” program, support the view that in addition to fostering social cohesion, synchronized movement hones the perceptual and motor abilities of the individuals involved.

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To study the effects of what they define as synchrony, Valdesolo, Ouyang and DeSteno asked 46 pairs of participants to rock in side-by-side rocking chairs either in unison or asynchronously. Next the research subjects were required to complete a computerized perceptual sensitivity task that measured their ability to detect and respond to movement. The experiment ended with each pair completing a cooperative task that required both individuals to hold either end of a wooden labyrinth and work together to move a steel ball from the start to the finish. After that activity was finished, the teams were separated and filled out personality evaluations of their partners.

Valdesolo, Ouyang and DeSteno found that rocking in unison—synchrony—increased the participants’ sensitivity to movement compared to those who rocked asynchronously. In addition, the synchronized pairs performed their cooperative task significantly faster.

“Soldiers may engage in synchronized drills not only because they build camaraderie but because [the drills] make them better marksmen,” commented Valdesolo. “Similarly, coordinated warm-up routines before a game may get the blood flowing, but they might also make soccer players more accurate distributors of the ball.”

The authors believe that this could, in part, explain the ubiquity of rhythmic dance across cultures and why synchronized movement so often occurs in domains that require complex motor skills (hunting, military, athletics). They believe the study could have important implications for the development of training regimens within these domains, said Valdesolo.

“Previous research has established that synchrony increases rapport, liking and cooperative spirit,” he noted. “But our work shows that by increasing our ability to detect and respond to movement, synchrony not only brings people together, it brings them together to practice the very skills essential to achieving their goals.”

Valdesolo is the college’s Robert E. Keiter ’57 Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Amherst and master’s and doctoral degrees from Northeastern. He joined the faculty in the fall of 2008.

To read the paper in its entirety, download the PDF at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Web site.

Founded in 1821, Amherst College is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1,600 students from most of the 50 states and more than 30 other countries. Considered one of the nation’s best educational institutions, Amherst awards the B.A. degree in 34 fields of study.

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