Field of Science

Group cohesion and the community sing

Religious types are big on communal singing. Aldous Huxley satirised this facet of religious life in his novel Brave New World...
"A cardinal," he exclaimed parenthetically, "was a kind of Arch-Community-Songster." (Chapter 17)
And it's not just singing. Chanting, dancing, and synchronised praying are characteristic of religions around the world. Why on earth should this be? Perhaps it's just that it's enjoyable. But then why should that be? And could there be something more to it?

New research suggests that there is. Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath, of Stanford University, have run a series of three experiments designed to discover if encouraging people to do things in synchrony with others can actually make them co-operate better.

For example, in one experiment, they got them to sing the line 'Oh Canada!' from the Canadian National Anthem (chosen because all the subjects were American, and so wouldn't intuitively relate to the anthem). Half the group sang along together. The other half of the group had the anthem running at different speeds, so they sang out 'Oh Canada!" at different times.

Then they got them to do a sharing game - a standard psychologist's game wherein the participants benefit most if everyone co-operates, but there is a penalty if you overestimate the co-operativeness of the rest of the group.

Sure enough, the group that sang together co-operated more. What's more, they also much more likely to report that they felt like they were on the same team. As a result, they averaged higher payouts (the synchronised group took home $5.57 on average, compared with $4.90 in the unsynchronised group).

Why did this happen? Well, singing together didn't make them any happier. And although they also tested the effects of banging cups in time, that didn't affect the result. So movement isn't needed - singing alone is enough (although marching in step also works).

It seems that singing as a group helps to bond the group. And what is the implication of this for humanists? Well, it's often claimed that religion helps to build social capital by bringing people together. But is it the religion? Or is it the singing and communal prayer? And if it's the latter, wouldn't we be better off with pop concerts and football matches?

Scott S. Wiltermuth, Chip Heath (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation Psychological Science, 20 (1), 1-5 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x


  1. Wouldn't singing be considered movement? It requires goal directed muscular contraction. I find it curious that marching and singing were influential and banging cups was not.

    I just discovered your blog recently and I'm enjoying it.

    Jon Newman

  2. A far more cynical writer once pointed out that encouraging people to chant or sing together is also a great way to shut down the "rational thinking" portion of their brain and reinforce their belief in whatever it is they're saying.

  3. Jon, I guess it would but the researchers were trying to distinguish between gross motor movements and other kinds of synchronised activity.

    They didn't test banging cups on its own. They did synchronous singing with and without cup banging, and asynchronous singing, and a control state where they just listened to the anthem.

    So maybe cup banging would be enough. That's certainly the implication of their results in total - that it doesn't much matter what you do, so long as whatever you do is synchronised.


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