Science Interviews


Tue, 15th Mar 2016

Synchronising society

Gabriela Pavarini, The University of Cambridge

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Cambridge Science Festival: Battle of the Brains

Chris Smith's first contestant may give his team a bit of an advantage as she Rowing Teamstudies teamwork for a living: it’s psychologist Gabriela Pavarini who wants to start with a bit of an activity...

Gabriela - Yes that’s right.  So we’re going to be doing some movements together and that’s going to create the sound of rain.  And I’m going to go through the movements with you and Chris is going to describe them for you. Okay…

Smith - Okay and so the first movement. Rubbing your palms together like you want to warm them up.  Good okay.

And we’re clicking fingers and thumbs. Okay.

Now you’re tapping two fingers from one hand on two fingers of the other hand.

Now you’re just having a clap.

Now you’re clapping your palms against your thighs.

Jumping on the spot.

And that’s the lot.  Okay that’s what we’re going to do.

Gabriela - Yes.  So we’re going to go through all those movements and then go backwards.

Smith - So reverse the order?  Do them again but in reverse order?

Gabriela - Yes, that’s right.

Smith - Off you go - it’s over to you…

Gabriela - So we can start right now…

 Smith - Very good.  I think you can give yourselves a round of applause… Right.  Okay, what did that prove?

Gabriela - That’s a demonstration of the type of research I do.  So my work is focussed on behaviour synchrony.  Basically, what I study is our ability to entrain our movements with the movements of other people and that’s called “entrainment” or “synchrony.”

Smith - Why is that important?

Gabriela - We find that when people engage in those types of activity; this could be either music making, drumming, dancing together etc., they tend to like each other more and they cooperate more, they feel closer to each other, more similar to one another so, basically, it’s a mechanism to facilitate cooperation and social bonding.

Smith - Many people say that’s not rocket science.  If you give people instructions, you can get them to copy it.

Gabriela -   I mean, we synchronise naturally so people tend to fall in sync with each other from very early on in life. When we listen to music we’re going to move to the sound of music so that’s a very basic human capability.

Smith - Are you saying then that hardwired into all of our brains is the ability to fall into step with each other whether we like it or not?

Gabriela - Yes, that’s right and those types of activities, they are seen everywhere so regardless of what type of society it is, how big it is, how small it is, how complex it is.  They alway stop at some point to single dance together, which is quite interesting.

Smith - Well Chris, is a musician.  Is this actually part of the reason why, when we go and see a big orchestra play, people can all keep time with each other?

Gabriela - Yes, that’s right.  So music is very related to that.  Music gives the possibility of a big group bonding together because they’re all following a common beat.

Berrow - It was interesting.  Your were almost conducting everybody like a conductor conducting an orchestra, for example.  It did seem very much like that and I definitely see the transfer.  Is there other implications with sport as well?  Does this transfer over to sport?

Gabriela - Yes for sure.  We did some studies with rowers, for example.  We asked them to row in synchrony versus our to synchrony using an indoor machine and then we see some convergence, when the convergence in terms of motion of states when they row in synchrony with one another.  There is also other research showing that if you synchronise then you cooperate better.

Smith - Now that all sounds like good stuff doesn’t it.  We’re getting together, playing sport really well, playing music really well.  Are there any examples of where it’s a bad thing?

Gabriela - Yes, it’s certainly not all good.  For example, there was one study that I ran in the lab in which people synchronised with each other with a simple tapping task like the one we did right now.  Half of the participants did that activity in synchrony, so they listened to the same music and they were tapping some cups together and then the other half of the participants did the same but out of synchrony so they were listening to different songs. After that, they were asked to drink some quite nasty drinks and then we asked them about the taste of the drink, we recorded their facial expression and we asked them how reluctant they were to taste that new beverage. If they had been in synchrony with the other person they reported they were less reluctant to drink and for some persons who were quite sensitive they expressed less disgust toward the drink when they had been in synchrony with somebody else.

Smith - So that might explain why school meals, despite being disgusting are nonetheless eaten on mass.

Gabriela - Yes, that’s true so you might need to get the kids all the synchronise before you send them out for break.


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