Walk in my shoes

Liam Cross gets in sync in search of solutions to intergroup conflict.

Every known culture engages in acts of rhythmic synchrony. Coordinated displays are even speculated to have been an early method of communication that may pre-date language. Locking in with others can reflect and reinforce group cohesion. But could it also be key to solving conflict?

As Steven Strogatz pointed out in his book Sync, synchrony in some form or other is all around us: from the rhythmic pulls from outer space that keep our world just as we like it, to the acrobatic murmuration of the ‘sort sol’ (or black sun) starlings in Denmark’s skies. Each bird steers towards the average heading of local flockmates (alignment), while steering towards the centre mass (cohesion) and avoiding collision (separation). These three rules (the Boids model), inspired the animated bat swarms and penguin armies in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Such synchronous displays aren’t only found in the stars, skies or sewers of Gotham City. Interpersonal coordination has been present throughout our evolutionary history, evident in prehistoric cave paintings depicting early dance, or the oldest known surviving instrument (a flute-like pipe made from human bone dating back over 40,000 years). We dance, sing, play music and even walk and breathe in coordinated ways with each other. This has led many people, including David Huron, Ian Cross, Robin Dunbar and Daniel Levitin, to speculate as to what adaptive advantage such coordinated rhythmic movements may have offered our early ancestors. Synchrony could have allowed individuals within groups to share perspectives and intentions, to strengthen group bonds and to signal cooperation, while also displaying coalition strength and stability to outsiders (enabling individuals to better defend territory and attract mates).

These accounts all share one common theme – that coordinated movements cultivate and/or strengthen a common group mentality amongst co-actors, which offers adaptive advantages. In Daniel Levitin’s words: ‘I believe that synchronous, coordinated song and movement were what created the strongest bonds between early humans or proto-humans and these allowed for the formation of larger living groups and eventually society as we know it’ (2008, p.50).

In their June 2018 article in these pages, ‘Synchrony and the art of signalling’, Jorina von Zimmerman and Daniel Richardson discussed how synchrony can maintain group cohesion, signal this to those outside those groups, and lead to pro-sociality within the group. Here, we build on that piece by considering other socio-emotional consequences of coordination, and its potential applications. This magazine’s editor reminded me of a saying: ‘If you hate someone, try walking a mile in their shoes. Then you’ll be a mile away from them, and you’ll have their shoes.’ But can the psychological evidence point to a less misanthropic view – and a surprisingly literal one, at that?

Pro-group, pro-social… or darker?
A significant body of research now shows that synchronous movements lead to pro-sociality amongst co-actors, including increased affiliation, rapport, trust, helping and cooperation. The most famous example comes from Wiltermuth and Heath’s seminal work, published in 2009 showing that Stanford students who synchronously walked or sung and waved cups in time with each other were more likely to cooperate in economic games than those individuals who had done so out of time, even if such cooperation came at a personal financial cost to them. Earlier studies from the 1980s had shown that Israeli males who sung in time with one another were more cooperative in a prisoner’s dilemma game than those who had performed similar non-synchronous tasks together. It seems to be moving in synchrony, as opposed to simple proximity, that matters.

But what if the co-actors in these studies weren’t other Israeli males or Stanford undergraduates? What if they were members of different or even opposing social groups? Are we observing pro-group behaviour, or genuinely pro-social changes? Psychology labs around the globe are exploring this very question. While work from Ronald Fischer’s group in New Zealand has suggested that coordination may lead to generalised pro-sociality extending beyond those involved in the coordination task, this finding is not widely supported. In fact, considerably more work now shows that effects are restricted to those involved in the coordination episode (for a discussion of this work and alternative explanations for findings see Cross, Wilson & Golonka, 2019). But are we more likely to cooperate more with anyone we coordinate with? Or do other interpersonal factors matter?

Work from Frank Russo’s lab in Canada found that people are most likely to cooperate with those they coordinate with, regardless of whether they are part of the same group as them (and they are then most likely to view those who coordinated as a group, as opposed to separate individuals). Other work has shown greater increases in pro-sociality following coordination only when people are coordinating with those they don’t already view as common group members.

If coordination can serve as a tool to foster cohesion and cooperation by signalling a cue to common group membership amongst participants, it makes sense that greater cooperation is only seen when such a common group mentality does not already exist. Indeed, work from Lynden Miles in Scotland has shown that experimentally created out-group members synchronise more tightly in a stepping task than experimentally created common group members. He argues that coordination may serve as a vehicle to reduce social distance and intergroup differences amongst members of different groups.

It appears that the pro-social effects of synchrony may be better categorised as pro-group, but the cognitive and behavioural effects of coordination do have a darker side. In two papers from Scott Wiltermuth in 2012, coordinated movements led to increased conformity with co-actors’ requests, even if these entailed destructive or aggressive acts towards others. Following coordinated walking or singing and cup waving, individuals were more likely to kill bugs (and kill more of them), or subject other people to noise blasts, if that request came from someone they had moved in synchrony with. (In theory at least – no bugs or ear drums were harmed in the making of this research).

The social effects of synchrony are wider still than those described here, though all of these effects share a common theme: they are all side effects of group categorisation, a by-product of individuals thinking of themselves and each other in common group ways. They are examples of in-group favouritism and out-group degeneration that follow from categorising individuals as in- or out-group members (see Cross, Atherton & Turgeon, 2019, for a review).

Next steps
So, moving in synchrony leads people to treat each other more like in-group members… why should we care? Well, we appear to be at a point in history where groups are becoming increasingly polarised – Republican and Democrat voters in the USA, Remainers and Brexiters in the UK, Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. Novel approaches to fostering better intergroup relations are of immediate importance; non-verbal methods could offer advantages over more traditional contact-based interventions. For one, interventions based on synchrony don’t rely on individuals having any common language or cultural reference points. We can avoid awkward or unintentionally offensive dialogue with members of other cultures (shown to be detrimental to verbal contact interventions). It’s a bottom-up and embodied approach to fostering better intergroup relations.

A recent theoretical article led by Christine Webb picked out a particularly appropriate example – coordinated walking. Webb and colleagues point out that metaphors for conflict and resolution seem embedded in the act of coordination, and often, walking together. For example, we feel a connection to those we view as being ‘on the same path’ or are ‘in sync’ with, while conversely, we may become distant from another by ‘drifting apart’, or we may ‘go round in circles’ and ‘get nowhere’. It’s possible, however, to heal these divides by ‘moving forward together,’ or ‘getting back on the same track’… we can empathise with others by ‘walking in their shoes’.

The apparent relationship between moving in time and intergroup relations led to the hypothesis that coordinated movement, such as walking together, might foster better relationships between polarised individuals and groups. Gray Atherton, Natalie Sebanz and I published a promising study in 2019, conducted in Hungary, where the Roma are a particularly disenfranchised group. For example, a recent survey found that 88 per cent of Hungarian parents would not want their child interacting with a Roma playmate. The EU recently started infringement proceedings against Hungary for discrimination towards the Roma, and the second largest political party (Jobbik) recently stated that: ‘There are two ways to solve the “Gypsy problem”… Our party wishes to offer one last chance to the destructive minority that lies here… If that agreement fails, then … the radical solution can follow.’

We first assessed Non Roma Hungarian nationals on their attitudes towards the Roma. One week later, they were invited to the lab. We used the Implicit Association Test with Roma/Non Roma pictures, and positive/negative words. Then individuals spent five minutes walking laps of a large corridor with a member of the Roma community either in or out of synchrony. A grid was marked out on the floor, and pairs walking in sync stepped in the grid in time, while one walked faster than the other in the out of sync condition. Affiliation and empathy of Non Roma participants towards the Roma participant they had walked with were then measured, along with a second assessment of all other measures.

Following synchronous walking, Non Roma individuals rated the Roma individuals as more likable, they felt closer to them, and they had more empathy for them. Those who had walked in sync also showed increased empathy and a reduction in negative implicit associations and explicit negative attitudes towards the Roma group as a whole (i.e. how aggressive or lazy they viewed the Roma, or how willing they would be to have a member of the Roma community as their boss, sexual partner or family member). Results concerning implicit measures are particularly encouraging, as they should not be as susceptible to demand characteristics as the self-report measures often used in this literature. While promising, such an intervention still suffers from one of the biggest barriers to intergroup contact interventions – actually getting members of conflicted groups into the same physical space. But research across a range of areas has shown that imagining an activity is similar in many ways to actually doing it. Imagining and performing movements can activate similar neural patterns, and even increase performance to an equivalent level on a range of tasks (such as throwing darts, skiing, or playing an instrument). Imagining being in a group can decrease helping behaviour in line with the bystander effect and imagined contact has in some circumstances shown success in fostering better intergroup relations akin to actual contact.

There is also some research suggesting that imagining walking in synchrony can increase rapport in line with actually walking. So our follow-up study presented a video introduction and asked participants to simply imagine walking either in or out of synchrony with a Roma individual. This mentally simulated coordinated walking improved intergroup relations to a similar level as actual walking.

Try it
While we often think of forming social connection with others through communication, there may be even more basic methods of decreasing prejudice. People who move with us are, it seems, in a group with us. By making the effort to move with someone, you open the possibility of being in the same group. Of course, shared views, values and beliefs remain vital in shaping our relationships… but why not try out these simpler, embodied mechanisms too?

- Dr Liam Cross is in the Department of Psychology at Edge Hill University.
[email protected]
Twitter @crossatherton

Key sources
Atherton, G., Sebanz, N. & Cross, L. (2019). Imagine all the synchrony: The effects of actual and imagined synchronous walking on attitudes towards marginalised groups. PLoS ONE, 14(5), e0216585.
Cross, L., Turgeon, M. & Atherton, G. (2019). How moving together binds us together: The social consequences of interpersonal entrainment and group processes. Open Psychology, 1(1), 273–302.
Cross, L., Wilson, A.D. & Golonka, S. (2019). I’ll just watch: Do the pro-social effects of coordination really generalize to non-actors? The Journal of Social Psychology. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2019.1623161
Levitin, D.J. (2008). The world in six songs: How the musical brain created human nature. New York, NY: Dutton Adult.
McNeill, W.H. (1997). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miles, L.K., Lumsden, J., Richardson, M.J. & Macrae, C.N. (2011). Do birds of a feather move together? Group membership and behavioral synchrony. Experimental Brain Research, 211(3-4), 495–503.
Webb, C.E., Rossignac-Milon, M. & Higgins, E.T. (2017). Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution? American Psychologist, 72(4), 374.
Wiltermuth, S.S. & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1-5.
Wiltermuth, S. (2012). Synchrony and destructive obedience. Social Influence, 7(2), 78-89.

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