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Moving in sync makes people think alike, study finds

Ralph Macchio and Karina Smirnoff are in synch on Dancing with the Stars.
Ralph Macchio and Karina Smirnoff are in synch on Dancing with the Stars.Adam Taylor / ABC

Whether it’s the couples gliding seamlessly across the floor in “Dancing with the Stars” or soldiers marching lock-step in parade, those kinds of synchronous movements can lead to a sort of unconscious mental harmony, two new studies show.

There’s something about moving in sync that makes us feel connected with others and leads us to want to think the way they do, says Scott Wiltermuth, an assistant professor of management and organization at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. He wrote two recently released studies on the effects of synchronicity.

And while that may initially sound like a good thing, the mental connection can have a dark side because it may override our natural inclinations and better judgment, Wiltermuth says.

"We feel more emotionally connected to one another when we’re moving in sync,” he explains. “And because of that we’re more likely to follow orders."

As examples of the dark side, Wiltermuth points to Nazi Germany and current day North Korea.

For one of the new studies, Wiltermuth asked 70 volunteer college students to walk behind an experimenter either matching stride for stride, or completely out of sync, or at whatever pace felt most comfortable.

After their spin around campus, the students were given questionnaires that asked them to rate on a 7-point scale how close they felt to the experimenter, how much they liked the experimenter, and how similar they felt to the experimenter, according to the report published in the journal Social Influence.

Sure enough, those who walked in sync saw themselves as more similar to the experimenter than those walking either purposely out of step or at whatever pace as they wished. The volunteers who walked in sync also felt closer to the experimenter.

In the second part of the study, volunteers were asked by the experimenter after their walk to funnel as many sow bugs -- also known as roly poly bugs -- as possible into a grinder labeled an “extermination machine.” In the end, the volunteers who had walked in sync with the experimenter “killed” the most pill bugs.

Wiltermuth is quick to point out that no actual critters were harmed in the experiment -- there was a trap door that shuttled them off to safety.

In his second study, 156 volunteers were divided into teams of three and trained to move plastic cups in a specific sequence in rhythm with music that was played through headphones. In some groups the music was the same, which led teams to move their cups in sync. In other groups the music was different, leading teams to move their cups out of sync.

When each group was finished they were told they could pick the music the next group would listen to. Teams that moved in sync once again felt closer to those in their group and were more likely to choose to blast unpleasant music to the next team at the request of a teammate (who happened to be an experimenter).

Wiltermuth doesn’t think there’s anything people can do about the sinister aspects of moving in sync, other than just being aware of its effects.

“Such synchronized activity might lead us to do things we might not otherwise do," he cautions.