An Explanation for Synchronized Swimming

Saturday, December 13, 2008

By Wray Herbert

There was a time when soldiers went into battle in columns and rows. They would line up and march in orderly formation toward the enemy, armed with spears or bayonets or some other weapon of close combat. The enemy would do the same thing, and one of these well-oiled formations would kill more soldiers than the other—and win the battle.

Advances in firearms long ago made the marching formation obsolete. It just doesn’t work with machine guns and IEDs. Yet armies all over the world still train for this archaic kind of warfare. Indeed, militaries continue to place high value on precision and synchrony that will never be used on a battlefield.

Why is that? Why do high schools have marching bands? Why do churches have choirs? And perhaps most perplexing of all, why do we have synchronized swimming? What is it about moving and chanting and singing in unison that appears to have universal appeal?

Anthropologists and cultural historians have offered up a variety of theories about synchrony over the years, mostly having to do with group coherence. One theory, for example, holds that various communities benefit from the actual physical synchrony—or “muscular bonding”—which builds group cohesiveness. Another idea is that synchronous activities lead to “collective effervescence”—positive emotions that break down the boundaries between self and group.

But neither of these theories has been proven, and what’s more, neither is complete. Muscle bonding may explain the coherence of the 14th Infantry Regiment, but those guys don’t seem very effervescent—not in the way that, say, carnival revelers are. And gross motor coordination doesn’t explain the almost motionless chanting of Tibetan monks. Psychologists have been looking for a unifying theory for the appeal of synchrony.

One idea, put forth by psychologists Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath of Stanford University, is that all synchrony—movement and sound and both together—is an ancient ritual that evolved for the economic benefit of the group. The primary goal of rhythmic dancing and marching and chanting is to solve the problem of the freeloader—the community member who hurts the collective good by taking but not contributing. Muscular bonding and collective joy are mere byproducts of this more fundamental economic ritual.

Wiltermuth and Heath ran a series of lab experiments to test this idea. In the simplest version, the researchers simply took groups of Stanford students on walks around campus; some walked in step—marching basically—while others just strolled the way students usually stroll. Later, after the students thought the experiment was over, the psychologists gave them all what’s called the “Weak Link” test. In this test, each volunteer chooses to act either self-interestedly or cooperatively, depending on what he anticipates others will do. The test basically measures the expectation that others will value the group over themselves.

The marchers acted more cooperatively than the strollers. They also said that they felt more “connected” than did the strollers. Notably, they did not report feeling any happier, suggesting that positive emotions were not necessary for the achieving the boost in group cohesiveness.

The psychologists wanted to do a more fine-grained test of their idea. It’s well known that a sense of common identity and shared fate boosts group cohesiveness, but the researchers wanted to see if synchrony contributes to group cohesiveness above and beyond this. They did a rather elaborate test to sort this out. They had students perform tasks—moving plastic cups—that required differing degrees of coordination with others. While doing this, they listened to “O Canada” through headphones. Remember that these were Stanford students, so the Canadian national anthem presumably had no emotional resonance for them; it was merely a synchronous act.

So some of the students sang and moved the cups in rhythm, while others just sang in unison and others merely read the lyrics silently. Still others sang and moved to different tempos—sort of like a really bad dancer moving at odds with the music. Then they did the same “Weak Link” test on all of them, only this time there was real money involved. As before, those who had experienced synchrony were more economically cooperative than those who had not. The bad dancers were bad citizens, but the physical movement otherwise made no difference; choral singers were selfless with or without the swaying, suggesting that muscle bonding is (like joy) unnecessary to get the desired group coherence. The swaying may be enjoyable, but the group singing was sufficient.

They did this “O Canada” experiment again with a different but similar test called the “public goods game.” This game uses tokens, and participants actually choose whether to contribute to a public kitty or their own private savings account. Self-interest has a higher payoff in the game, but the group benefits more if everyone acts unselfishly. They got the same results as before, but the interesting finding was this: The game has several rounds, and over time the choral singers increased their contribution to the group, keeping less money for themselves. They gave much more to the community fund in the last round than they did in the first, suggesting that the synchrony has persistent and growing effects.

The choral singers also said they felt more part of the team. They felt they had more in common with the others, and they trusted them somewhat more. Interestingly, as reported in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science, they also made more money in the end, because they shared in the group bounty.
Synchrony rituals are powerful So powerful that they may have endowed certain groups with a competitive advantage over the eons, perhaps even causing some cultures to flourish while others perished. It’s no wonder then that such potent impulses remain entrenched in today’s churches and armies—and, yes, could even explain synchronized swimming.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 8:16 AM


At 4:18 PM , Blogger John Daly said...


How did the researchers rule out cooperation as the cause rather than synchronicity? People have to cooperate to behave in synch with each other, and past cooperation builds trust.

It might have been interesting to compare team activities where members have to work synchronously or anti-synchronously to achieve some purpose with payoff. If the synchronous teams (drill teams, dance teams) were more trusting than the others (football, soccer) then there might be something to the theory.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home