Can clapping and tapping together change how children feel about each other, and even lead them to behave in more socially positive ways? According to new research by Hebrew University of Jerusalem psychologist Prof. Ariel Knafo, children mimicking each other’s body language for mere minutes are more likely to share feelings of similarity and closeness, and to potentially engage in more pro-social, positive behaviors.
Among adults, inter-personal synchronization has been shown as important for performing many cooperative tasks. It also appears to lead to improved performance in subsequent cooperative activities, and to positively impact prosocial behavior such as offering help to an interacting partner.
In the new study, Knafo and co-author Chen Rabinowitch, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Studies, wished to determine whether such attitude shifts might also occur in children.
To address this question, they examined synchronous rhythmic interaction in pairs of 8-year-old participants. Some children in the study were previously acquainted, while others had never met. The young age of the participants was important, Knafo says, because by age 10 a child reaches “adult levels of performance.”
The study included various activities in a lab setting, some requiring a mere three minutes or less in duration. The children engaged in simple repetitive motions such as hand clapping and tapping in both group and individual clinical settings. Those activities were chosen because they involved simultaneous sound and body motion. Three minutes is “sufficient for children to feel similar and close to their interacting partner,” according to Knafo.
After the activities, each child individually completed a similarity questionnaire and a closeness measure. The researchers found that after only 3 minutes of synchronous interaction, the children felt significantly closer and more similar to their interacting partner than children who had engaged in an asynchronous interaction, or children who had not engaged in any interaction at all. These findings emphasize that already in children synchrony can influence social attitude, a potential precursor of pro-social behavior.
The study also notes that, in previous research, children participating in musical activities at the same time rather than as soloists develop pro-social behavior. Knafo explains that “such physical coordination might extend to social-attitudinal resemblance, making the child assume that whoever is acting like me is probably like me.”
In explaining the study’s importance, Knafo said the propensity to cooperate is a hallmark of civilization, essential for productivity and survival. In addition to synchronization’s importance for performing cooperative tasks, among its benefits is an enhanced capacity for empathy. The research findings pave the way for further research on synchronous interaction in children and their social influences, including their potential role in intervention strategies.
The peer-reviewed research paper is published at PLOS One as “Synchronous Rhythmic Interaction Enhances Children’s Perceived Similarity and Closeness towards Each Other” (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120878). Preparation of the research manuscript was supported by a grant from the European Research Council to Ariel Knafo.
Press release text written by Richard Macales.