The rhythm that unites: an empirical investigation into synchrony, ritual, and hierarchy
Synchrony, or rhythmic bodily unison activities such as drumming or cadence marching, has attracted growing scholarly interest. Among laboratory subjects, synchrony elicits prosocial responses, including altruism and empathy. In light of such findings, researchers in social psychology and the bio-cultural study of religion have suggested that synchrony played a role in humanity’s evolutionary history by engendering collectivistic commitments and social cohesion. These models propose that synchrony enhances cohesion by making people feel united. However, such models overlook the importance of differentiated social relations, such as hierarchies. This dissertation builds on this insight by drawing on neuroscience, coordination dynamics, social psychology, anthropology, and ritual studies to generate a complex model of synchrony, ritual, and social hierarchy, which is then tested in an experimental study. In the hypothesized model, shared motor unison suppresses the brain’s ability to distinguish cognitively between self-caused and exogenous motor acts, resulting in subjective self-other overlap. During synchrony each participant is dynamically entrained to a group mean rhythm; this “immanent authority” prevents any one participant from unilaterally dictating the rhythm, flattening relative hierarchy. As a ritualized behavior, synchrony therefore paradigmatically evokes shared ideals of equality and unity. However, when lab participants were assigned to either a synchrony or asynchrony manipulation and given a collaborative task requiring complex coordination, synchrony predicted a marginally lower degree of collaboration and significantly lower interpersonal satisfaction. These findings imply that unity and equality can undercut group cohesion if the collective agenda is a shared goal that requires interpersonal coordination. My results emphasize that, despite the inevitable tensions associated with social hierarchy, complementary roles and hierarchy are vital for certain aspects of social cohesion. Ritual and convention institute social boundaries that can be adroitly negotiated, even as egalitarian effervescence such as communitas (in the sense of Victor Turner) facilitates social unity and inspires affective commitments. These findings corroborate theories in ritual studies and sociology that caution both against excessive emphasis on inner emotive states (such as empathy) and against excessively rigid conventions or roles. An organic balance between unity and functional differentiation is vital for genuinely robust, long-term social cohesion.