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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