Connor Wood, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, and Anna Stopa (2018). “The Rhythms of Discontent: Synchrony Impedes Performance and Group Functioning in an Interdependent Coordination Task,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 18 154-179. DOI: 10.1163/15685373-12340028.
Abstract: Synchrony has been found to increase trust, prosociality and interpersonal cohesion, possibly via neurocognitive self-other blurring. Researchers have thus highlighted synchrony as an engine of collective identity and cooperation, particularly in religious ritual. However, many aspects of group life require coordination, not merely prosocial cooperation. In coordination, interpersonal relations and motor sequences are complementary, and leadership hierarchies often streamline functioning. It is therefore unclear whether synchrony would benefit collaborative tasks requiring complex interdependent coordination. In a two-condition paradigm, we tested synchrony's effects on a three-person, complex verbal coordination task. Groups in the synchrony condition performed more poorly on the task, reporting more conflict, less cohesion, and less similarity. These results indicate boundary conditions on prosocial synchrony: in settings that require complex, interdependent social coordination, self-other blurring may disrupt complementary functioning. These findings dovetail with the anthropological observation that real-world ritual often generates and maintains social distinctions rather than social unison.
Here's a blog post at Patheos explaining the work. From the post:
So the findings seem pretty clear: rhythmic synchrony dissolves boundaries between participants, releases pain-numbing, pleasure-causing endorphins, and makes people feel more cooperative and close to one another. Given that many religious and cultural rituals aim at building social bonds, it make sense that many rituals include synchrony. Hence, thinkers such as the late historian William McNeill have argued that religious rituals may even have their evolutionary roots in rhythm and dance.But, are religious rituals really so full of synchrony? And is synchrony always a good thing?If you go to a mosque and watch (or take part in) one of the five daily salat prayer services, you’ll definitely see synchrony. After the end of the azan call, worshipers take part in cycles of highly synchronized kneeling, prostration, and standing, vocally guided by the imam. But you’re also likely to see people getting up out of sync, wandering around, coming in late, leaving early. Sometimes the imam doesn’t guide the prayer audibly, so the faithful are left to their own rhythms. In that case there’s often not much coordination between different people at all.Similarly, in a Catholic Mass, periods of conspicuous group synchrony – such as hymn singing or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer – alternate with extensive times when people are doing different things. For example, during the Eucharist itself, people shuffle up and down the aisles to reach the altar, receive their wafers and wine one at a time – not simultaneously – and then wander back to their seats at their own pace. It can look positively disorganized.Beyond the context of ritual, a whole lot of real-world, secular activities don’t feature much synchrony at all. When workers are building a skyscraper, the concrete pourers are working at a different pace relative to the crane operator, the window installers, and the steelworkers. If they all worked at one single, constant rhythm, they couldn’t do their unique, specialized jobs, and the building wouldn’t get built.
The post continues: "My lab team wanted to explore this intersection of convergent (identical) and complementary (different but coordinated) behaviors in a novel setting." Here's what they found:
As described above, previous studies had mostly shown that synchrony has positive effects on group dynamics. But in our study, we found the opposite. Not only did groups in the synchrony condition perform worse on the main task – they composed fewer and less-complex sentences than groups that had swung pendulums out-of-sync – but they also reported more “procedural conflict,” or interpersonal clashes about how to best succeed at the sentence task.What’s more, groups in the synchrony condition reported feeling less in-group similarity, and a reduced sense of belonging to a tight collective, than subjects in the asynchrony condition. Overall, it almost seemed as if being in a task-oriented context reversed the normal, positive effects of synchrony.
But meanwhile, there’s good reason to infer that, while rhythm and synchrony might make people feel more cooperative, they might not be helpful in contexts that require intricate coordination and leadership, since such tasks seem to call for differentiated practical roles, not total social unison.