Engaging in physical activities with others, such as dancing together, significantly increases the sense of bonding with the group but it does not necessarily lead to more generosity or altruism towards strangers within that group, according to new research. The study’s results, which appear in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, challenge previous assumptions about the role of cooperation in the evolution of sociality and highlight the importance of considering distinct cognitive processes in social interactions.
The motivation behind this study was to investigate how synchronized movement, such as dancing in particular, relates to social bonding and cooperation within human communities. Synchronized movement involves individuals moving together in a coordinated manner, like dancers moving in unison or a group exercising in sync. This phenomenon is quite common in human interactions, from traditional cultural rituals and celebrations to modern-day dancing.
The researchers were curious to understand how this synchronized movement influences the way people feel connected to each other and how it might affect their willingness to cooperate and work together as a group. They wanted to explore whether engaging in synchronized activities might create a sense of togetherness and lead to increased cooperation within the community.
“I first became interested in dance (and music more generally) because of the role it seemed to play in creating social cohesion in small scale ethnographic societies,” said study author Robin Dunbar, an emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford and author of “Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships.”
“Many researchers assumed that societies evolved to enable cooperative ventures, but this had led directly to a difficulty in showing that cooperation alone was sufficient for sociality to evolve — too often it leads to various forms of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which the advantages of exploiting a cooperator’s altruism undermine the act of cooperation.”
“It seemed to me that we had collectively misunderstood the problem of cooperation. Societies do not evolve to facilitate cooperation; instead, cooperation emerges as a freebee once you have created a bonded society. Dance might be one of the mechanisms used to create a bonded society.”
To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted experimental studies using dance and compared it with unsynchronized gym circuit training as a baseline condition. They organized the dance sessions and gym sessions as regular public activities, allowing participants to attend without being aware of the study’s true purpose.
A total of 167 participants were recruited. The participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 67 years, with an average age of 27.51 years. The participants were asked to complete questionnaires about their mood and bonding with the group. The researchers also measured their willingness to be generous toward a stranger using a “dictator game.”
The dictator game is a simple economic game often used in social science research to assess altruism and generosity. It is designed to explore how individuals make choices about distributing resources when they have the power to decide on behalf of others. In the current study, each participant received £5 in coins. They were given the power to decide how much of this money they wanted to keep for themselves and how much they wanted to give away to another person in the study.
The researchers found that when people spent time together doing a physical activity (whether dancing or exercising), it significantly increased their sense of bonding or feeling connected to each other. However, this increased bonding did not necessarily lead to more generosity in giving away money to others or in trusting them.
“Like many of the other behaviors we use in our social interactions, dancing together is one of the mechanisms we use to create the bonded relationships (friendships) that underpin our cohesive social groups,” Dunbar told PsyPost. “They do not, however, necessarily encourage us to behave altruistically towards strangers. What it does is allow us to build a relationship of trust that facilitates altruism.”
The results suggest that there might be distinct cognitive processes involved in forming close social bonds with others compared to being altruistic or cooperative with them. While bonding with others might be influenced by emotional and non-deliberative factors, being generous or cooperative might involve more conscious thought and consideration of costs and benefits.
“We were surprised by the results of this study, because we were in fact expecting to show that dancing together made people immediately more altruistic towards strangers — that this was indeed the function of all these kinds of social activities,” Dunbar explained. “Because we were unable to explain what appeared to be negative results, we set the study aside, thinking we must have designed the experiment badly.”
“But later we got identical results in a study of laughter (laughing together in a group bonds you together, but doesnt make you behave more generously towards a stranger). It took us around 10 years and a lot of other work on sociality to realize that, in fact, we had not designed the study badly at all; rather we had misconstrued the nature of sociality.”
The study suggest that altruism, cooperation, and other forms of prosocial behavior might not be the initial cause of creating bonded relationships and groups, but rather, they could be the outcome or result of such connections.
Instead of individuals cooperating first and then forming close relationships, it appears that the process works in the opposite direction: bonding and creating strong social ties might be the catalyst for altruistic and cooperative behaviors. When people feel a sense of belonging and connection with others, they are more likely to act in ways that benefit the group as a whole, even without explicit negotiations or conscious deliberation.
But the researchers said that it would be valuable to conduct the same study again but with a longitudinal design. Tracking the same group of participants over an extended period would allow them to better examine whether they became more likely to act altruistically towards each other once a strong bond has been established via repeated interactions.
“It is always good to replicate studies to show that an effect holds under many different conditions,” Dunbar told PsyPost. “Unfortunately, journal editors tend not to like replication studies because they are always hoping for the study that produces a theory-changing finding — the golden goose egg of science. Unfortunately, in science, publishing studies that claim to have ‘novel’ or ‘world-changing’ findings is invariably less useful than publishing replications, since very few studies that claim to have dramatically novel results actually turn out to do so: too often, they turn out to be based on unrecognized confounds or crass statistical naivety.”
“It is an object lesson that, in social and behavioral sciences, our attempts to make predictions are too often underdetermined by the weakness of our theories,” the researcher added. “Our predictions are too often more a case of virtue signalling in an attempt to appear scientific. Real science is about understanding the world, and in these cases is often better done by what philosophers of science refer to as ‘postdiction’ rather than prediction. Like most of the null hypotheses in our statistical tests, our predictions are too often naive and theoretically trivial.
“A second object lesson is that data trump theory in science: as the great founding father of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper, reminded us, when we get experimental results that seem to contradict our theory, it isn’t always because the theory is wrong — more often than not it is because we have designed a bad experiment because we have overlooked a confounding variable or misunderstood the complexity of the real world,” Dunbar added.
The study, “The Evolutionary Role of Dance: Group Bonding But Not Prosocial Altruism“, was authored by Bronwyn Tarr and Robin I. M. Dunbar.