Monday, 28 November 2011

Muscular bonding: Rowing together is more fun

Not only can behavioural synchrony build rapport, it can also increase your pain threshold. Dunbar and colleagues measured pain tolerance in rowers from Oxford College. They put one of those blood pressure cuffs around the rowers' arms and gradually inflated it over the 45 minute trial. As it inflated, it would squeeze the rowers' arms until it really started to hurt. (Trust rowers to sign up for that!)

They did two trials. In one trial, the rowers rowed by themselves alone in a room. In the second trial, the team of 12 rowed together in 'boat mode'.

You can probably guess what the results were: they let the pressure band get a lot tighter when they were rowing together than when they were rowing alone. Dunbar and colleagues speculate that this was because of behavioural synchrony. The rowers were so focused on rowing in time, that they didn't notice the pain.

The study is limited because they didn't control for the effects of group motivation (e.g. those tough rowers wouldn't have wanted to wuss out in front of the rest of the team).

Muscular bonding
This experiment lends weight to William McNeill's theory of 'muscular bonding'. In his book "Keeping together in time: Dance and Drill in human history", McNeill claims that behavioural synchrony is the reason why the Nazis gained power. Marching and saluting as one caused German people to feel part of a broader movement. It wasn't because they were bad people, it was because of those dratted mirror neurons.

How you can use this knowledge
Build stronger teams
If you lead teams or run group training sessions, it seems pretty sensible to add in some 'muscular bonding' into what you're doing. Create a little ritual at the start and end of the day. Maybe you could have a secret handshake, a clapping routine or even a dance. Something energetic that everyone does in synch.

When I was facilitating the Global Changers leadership program. I liked to throw in 'Power claps', where everyone claps in unison. I thought it was just a great way to get people's attention, but now I see that it's also a way to bring a group together

Other reading: 
Synchrony and cooperation: combat the 'free rider' problem by getting people to do synchronous activity before collaborating

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