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Studies show that people walking side by side naturally tend to synchronise their movements.

I remembering reading years ago that, in a business meeting, sitting beside someone you normally disagree with makes you both feel more akin. I know that when I tried it, I felt friendlier toward the other person, less antagonistic.

That insight came to mind recently when I read an article at the Conversation by Liam Cross, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in the UK.

“It’s often said,” he writes, “we feel a connection to those we are on the same path as or in sync with. … Many metaphors for conflict and resolution seem to revolve around walking or moving together. But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised by this – research shows that moving in time together with another person can result in positive social consequences.

One study, for example, found that people who walk in step with one another are more likely to cooperate – even if doing so comes at a financial cost to them. Studies have also shown how coordinating your movement with other people – such as tapping to the same rhythm – can lead to greater rapport and the desire to help each other.

“We are also more likely to conform to and obey requests when they come from someone we have coordinated with.

“Given then that we are living at a time in history when many people are marching for equality and an end to discrimination and prejudice, in our latest research project we wanted to find out if walking together could be used as a tool to foster better relationships between polarised groups. And it seems it can – in more ways than you might imagine.

“We tested whether walking in synchrony with a member of a disenfranchised minority group could improve people’s attitudes towards that group. We asked native Hungarians to walk with a Roma person. Roma people are a particularly disenfranchised group in Hungary. …

“One week before coming into the lab, we asked 70 Hungarians to fill in an attitudes assessment towards the Roma online. They were then introduced to a Roma person and spent five minutes walking laps of a large room with them. They did so either synchronously (landing their steps at the same time), or at different speeds.

The study found that following synchronous walking, people rated their Roma co-walker as more likeable, felt closer to them and had more empathy for them. They also showed increased empathy and a reduction in negative attitudes towards the Roma group as whole.

“We then wanted to see if just imagining walking in step could have the same effects. … Research has also shown that imagining having a positive conversation with members of different social groups can help bring groups together akin to actual positive interactions. Previous research has also shown how imagining walking in synchrony with a group of people can increase rapport in line with actually walking together.

“In a follow-up study, 60 Hungarian people came in to the lab and were asked to just imagine walking with a Roma man or woman after a video introduction. They were simply asked to imagine walking either in or out of sync with them. The study found that just imaging walking in synchrony improved intergroup relations akin to actual walking. …

“This kind of bodily synchrony is something we, as humans, have been doing for many thousands of years. From prehistoric cave paintings of our dancing ancestors to the remains of Palaeolithic pipes people have practised moving in time with each other throughout history.

“For coordination to have persisted across culture and time, it likely served some adaptive purpose in terms of evolution. Perhaps one of these purposes was to do with helping people get on the same path and move forward together. It seems then that there might just be something to the idea that we can empathise with others by walking in their shoes.”

More at the Conversation, here.

“Walk Together Children, Don’t You Get Weary,” sung by Mt. Olives Church Choir, Naalya, Uganda.

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