Why Do We So Seek Synch?

We economists are known for being “imperial” in trying to apply economics to almost everything. And that’s a goal I can get behind, in the sense of trying to find an integrated view of the social world, where all social phenomena have a place and some candidate explanations within a common framework. Of course many parts of this integrated view may start first in fields outside economics.

In pursuit of such an integrated view, I’ve been making a special effort to learn more about social phenomena that economists don’t talk much about. And since a lot of these phenomena are often associated with the words “play” and “ritual”, and it is sociologists who most seem to write about these things, I’ve been reading a lot of sociology.

Sixteen months ago I posted about an intriguing summary of Randall Collins’ book Interaction Ritual Chains:

Any physical gathering … turns into a ritual when those physically present focus their attention on specific people, objects, or symbols, and are thereby constituted as a distinct group with more or less clear boundaries. …

A ritual, for Collins, is basically an amplifier of emotion. … A successful ritual generates and amplifies motivating emotions. … Perhaps Collins’ most controversial claim is the idea that we are basically emotional energy “seekers”: much of our social activity can be understood as a largely unconscious “flow” along the gradient of maximal emotional energy charge for us, given our particular material resources and positions within the … set of ritual situations available to us. Our primary “motivation” is the search for motivation. … Motivation is simply a result of emotional amplification in ritual situations. …

Emotional charge or motivational energy is built up from entrainment: the micro-coordination of gesture, voice, and attention in rhythmic activity, down to tiny fractions of a second. Think of how in an engrossing conversation the partners are wholly attuned to one another, laughing and exhibiting emotional reactions simultaneously, keeping eye contact, taking turns at precisely the right moments, mirroring each other’s reactions. … Or consider sexual acts, to which Collins devotes a long and very interesting chapter. (more)

I’ve now read this book carefully, twice. Here is my report.

Collins clearly has his finger on an important social pattern. People clearly do seek, enjoy, and gain emotional energy from social situations where they have finely synchronized actions that show common preferences and focus of attention. This description fits most of the situations that we most treasure, but which economists struggle to explain.

Collin’s theoretical explanation for this pattern is that we humans just fundamentally want to synch, and to be the center of synched attention. We must sometimes do other things or we’d starve or freeze etc., but with all our remaining freedom we seek synch.

This explanation just seems totally inadequate to me. If this is what we fundamentally wanted we’d live very differently lives. We’d arrange vast world sing-alongs, and/or clap-alongs or dance-alongs, where everyone who was not asleep or working could all do the same things together. And not only don’t we do this, we don’t seem interested in trying to arrange it.

I’m an economic theorist, and the sociology theorists I’ve read just don’t seem very good at thinking about what theory can or should be. If you see a social pattern your first hypothesis to explain it should not be that this is the one and only thing anyone really wants, with all else being practical constraints. Instead you might consider that it is one of many things people fundamentally want, and then try to study the tradeoffs people make to sometimes get more of this thing, and sometimes get more of other things.

Or you might consider that the pattern doesn’t correspond to any particular thing people fundamentally want, but is instead a common instrumental way to get a wide range of other things. For example, just because we trade often in markets doesn’t mean we have a fundamental need to trade. Instead, trade can just be a widely useful way to get other things we want. Thinking about the functions that synch can serve should also help us come up with a story for how evolution could have selected for the seeking of synch. (Collins doesn’t ever consider evolutionary origins.)

Economist Michael Chwe has a 2001 book Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge, where he says that ritual functions to create common knowledge (technically, common belief) about many things. For example, a coronation makes common belief that everyone accepts a new King. A wedding makes common belief that two people are married. Advertising can make common belief that many people like a product. Media can make common belief that many people care about an issue.

Clearly we do often create common belief when we synch, and clearly common belief is useful in the ways that Chwe mentions. But our personal desire to coordinate our beliefs to achieve the functions that Chwe lists doesn’t seem to me remotely sufficient to explain the huge effort we put into rituals, broadly conceived, or the powerful emotional energy that we each get out of them. Collins is quite right to emphasize how powerful ritual can be, even if he goes too far to posit seeking synch as the fundamental human desire.

Those who know me well won’t be surprised if I suggest that coalition politics is a more plausible common reason to seek synch. We want to join with allies, showing them that we share their preferences, pay close attention to them, and are willing to give up control to them, if they’ll do the same for us. Finely synchronized behaviors like sex, sport, and conversation let us signal these things, making common belief that we know these things about each other.

We don’t want to ally with everyone, but are instead picky. We ally with some against others. We prefer allies with high status, ability, loyalty, etc. So we aren’t very interested in one big world ritual. We instead prefer to share rituals with those who are good at them. We want to sing in choirs with good singers, to play sports with good athletes, and to argue with people who are good arguers. And we want these people to think that we are also good enough to join in, and we want them to feel especially bonded to us as a result.

Of course I’m not saying that bonding in coalition politics is the only function of synch. But it is at least a function that we care about enough to plausibly account for something close to the strength with which we pursue synch. We really really love to feel we are accepted and respected by those we accept and respect.

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  • Sid K

    1) Randall Collins also considers fear of anti-synch in his book, Violence: he called it confrontational tension/fear (ct/f). He argues that humans are bad at violence because ct/f peaks during violent encounters and a lot of situational and social variables need to be conducive for people to overcome the ct/f barrier and commit violence. He argues that ct/f isn’t just fear of bodily harm; instead it’s simply fear of anti-synch. This is sufficient for him, because he takes synch to be fundamental.

    2) In a certain sense synch can be evolutionarily or rationally motivated, but it could still be a “fundamental” drive — like hunger or lust. Collins himself isn’t interested in that problem.

  • Of course many parts of this integrated view may start first in fields outside economics.

    What makes you think economics will provide the fundaments of an integrated social science? Isn’t human nature really the fundamental question, and isn’t psychology the main discipline addressing it? Doesn’t man being a rationalizing rather than a rational animal provide further evidence for basing social science on psychology?

    [Much sociology theorizing represents an outright effort to find the organizing principle. Unfortunately, such ends are rarely attained by direct assault.]

    • I didn’t mean to claim economics would be focal.


    “Or you might consider that the pattern doesn’t correspond to any particular thing people fundamentally want, but is instead a common instrumental way to get a wide range of other things.”

    This is true for coalition politics as well: coalitions can also be seen as means to ends. I do agree that forming coalitions, if you want to define them wide enough to include romantic relationships and family units, is probably the most important reason for wanting to sync.

    P.S. why doesn’t Collins separate “positive” from “negative” emotions when he calls humans “emotional energy seekers”, most people don’t spend their lives searching for more pain?

    • endril

      “most people don’t spend their lives searching for more pain?”

      I dunno, when people are sad, they listen to sad music and get even sadder. Also funerals are like sadness rituals.
      It feels better in the end, somehow, if we amplify our negative emotions at the time we’re having them.

      • IMASBA

        Listening to sad music is more about getting acknowledgement (it’s a substitute for sitting in a group that complains about the things you like to complain about) than about deepening the pain. I will grant you that in extreme circumstances humans do have a tendency to “want to feel alive”, a.k.a. rather feeling pain than not feeling anything at all (depressed people cutting themselves, or people fearing annihilation more than hell), but of course feeling pleasure is preferred over feeling pain.

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  • arch1

    Another Collins oversimplification may be wrt personality type. I have seen it asserted (maybe even as a defining characterisic) that extroverts tend to be energized by social occasions, while introverts tend to be drained by them.

    • I haven’t read Collins, but my hunch is that reaction to rituals might be key to the introvert/extravert personality dimension.

      Collins recognizes that rituals can be draining as well as energizing. It surely isn’t the case that introverts never get energy from interactions, but it does seem that introverts have different standards for interactions: they demand greater intensity. (What most drains introverts is small talk, which is an energizing ritual for extraverts.)

      Rituals, according to Collins, can be draining or energizing. It may be that extraverts are drained by what’s for them excessive intensity. This would fit with Eysenck’s old theory of introversion/extraversion: introverts need a higher arousal level.

  • richard silliker

    Synchronicity gives rise to influence.

  • TJR

    Ainslie’s book “Breakdown of Will” explains that people seek sync
    because triggers for emotional rewards habituate less if the rewards are
    somewhat random, and social (empathy) rewards under others’ control are inherently
    less predictable than finding pleasure by yourself.

    Ainslie finds coalition politics again within the mind, as negotiations
    between the different competing interests of present and various future
    selves. So the signaling purpose of synching arises independently a
    second time.

  • brendan_r

    Robin’s coalition politics explanation for sync makes sense.

    In high school football it’s common when both teams are lined up pre-game on their opposite sidelines and the coin toss is happening for one of the team’s to rhythmically slap their pads and chant like some Bantu war party. It fires up that team for sure and can be somewhat intimidating especially since it’s the naturally scary inner city schools that tend to do it.