I’ve always been rather embarrassed about my utter absence of any sense of rhythm. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to witness me dancing, you’ll know I’ve had much too much red wine. But I’m not just referring to my incompetence on the dance floor. Unfortunately, my case of sensory-motor arrhythmia is far worse than that. At academic conferences, I even have trouble synchronizing my clapping with the rest of the audience during a round of applause.

It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. When I found myself in my school’s choir as a freckled-faced tenor of unprecedented inability, I thought lip-syncing was my ticket out of this new brand of awkwardness. But despite my admirable efforts to spare listeners from the unpleasant acoustics of a neurotically self-conscious ten-year-old, I couldn’t even lip sync properly, and thus I compromised the entire onstage aesthetic of group harmony.

Perhaps these problems with synchronizing myself with others’ actions have had something to do with my independent nature. And that isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, recent evidence seems to suggest that my difficulty with behavioral synchronization would tend to make me a poor cooperative partner. In a brief series of experiments published in a recent issue of Psychological Science, researchers Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath from Stanford University reveal how behavioral synchronization causes people to behave more fairly and generously on seemingly unrelated later tasks.

For example, in the first of three studies, participants were led on a tour around campus in groups of three. These groups were randomly assigned to either a “walk-in-step” condition, where the three individuals essentially marched together in synchrony with the experimenter around campus, or the control condition, where participants simply walked normally around campus. Later, in an ostensibly separate exercise, the participants were asked to play a standard economic game with the two other people from their campus tour group. Oddly enough, the marchers acted less selfishly than the walkers. That is to say, compared to the walkers, the marchers made financial decisions on the economic game that were best for all members of the group rather than simply themselves. (Although this effect tapered off after the first round of the game.)

Furthermore, when asked how they felt about the other players, the marchers felt significantly more “connected with” and trustful of their teammates than did the walkers. (Apparently, this is something military brass have intuited for millennia!)  But they didn’t report feeling any happier. This latter finding—that cooperation on the economic game was not determined by a “collective effervescence” spillover effect from the synchronous activity—reveals that it is more than just the positive emotions resulting from group play (through ritual, dance, singing, and so on) that drive cooperative tendencies after synchrony.

In two further studies, Wiltermuth and Heath demonstrated the synchronous effect on cooperation occurs independently of whether the behavioral activity involves gross motor displays (such as marching, rowing, and dancing) or less muscular activities (such as chanting, praying, or singing). For example, participants were randomly assigned to one of four possible conditions, where they sat in groups of three. In the control condition, participants held a plastic cup above the table before them, listened to “O Canada” on a pair of headphones, and silently read the lyrics to the anthem. Those in the synchronous-singing condition also held the cup steady but sang the words “O Canada” aloud at the appropriate times during the song. Participants in the synchronous-singing-and-moving condition did the same, and they also moved their cups from side to side in time with the music. Finally, those who found themselves assigned to the asynchronous condition similarly sang and moved the cups, but unbeknownst to them, the anthem was playing in their headphones at different tempos, causing them to be out of sync with their teammates.

Wiltermuth and Heath found that people from the two synchronous conditions cooperated more on a subsequent economic game than did those from the control and asynchronous conditions. Based on these findings, the authors point out that, “synchrony rituals may have endowed some cultural groups with an advantage in societal evolution, leading some groups to survive where others have failed.”

Perhaps. But the mechanisms underlying the influence of synchrony on pro-social behavior are, at the moment, frustratingly unknown. And personally I’ve always found those who march to the beat of a different drummer much more entertaining—even if they are somewhat prone to stabbing me in the back. 

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed and never miss an installment again.