As part of our ongoing inquiry into the evolutionary origins of music, we’ve noted a line of research that links altruistic behavior with synchronized sounds. A study from England found eight- to 11-year-olds who made music together were also more compassionate than their peers. Another from Germany found four-year-olds who had sung and marched together were more likely to help one another pick up spilled marbles.
New Canadian research presents further evidence of this dynamic—and finds it applies at a much younger age. Even at 14 months, it seems, infants are more likely to offer help to an adult they’ve just met if their first encounter involved rhythmically swaying in sync.
The findings suggest moving together to music cements social bonds, and “may promote the very early development of altruistic behavior,” writes McMaster University researchers Laurel Trainor, Laura Cirelli, and Kathleen Einarson. Their study is published in the journal Developmental Science.
Music makes simultaneous swaying possible, and those shared (or mirrored) movements help us feel connected and inspire altruistic behavior.
In their first experiment, 48 infants (with a mean age of 14.2 months) listened to one of two versions of the bouncy Beatles's version of "Twist and Shout."
“The assistant held and bounced each infant to music while facing the experimenter,” the researchers write. “The infant watched the experimenter, who bounced (by bending at the knees) either in-synchrony or out-of-synchrony with the way the infant was being bounced.”
Approximately half the infants did so using the standard version of the song. The others heard, and were bounced to, a modified version in which the time interval between the beats varied randomly.
Afterwards, the assistant left the room, the infant was placed on a foam mat on the floor, and the experimenter—after capturing the baby’s attention—“accidentally” dropped several items, including clothespins and markers used for drawing. Researchers noted whether the infant picked up and handed the dropped object to the experimenter, and how quickly this occurred.
They found the infants were “significantly more likely to demonstrate spontaneous helping behavior” if they had just bounced in sync with the experimenter. Whether the beat was regular or unpredictable did not matter.
Importantly, this effect was only found for instantaneous assistance—that is, where the infant reacted to the dropped object within 10 seconds. “Spontaneous helping occurs quickly, and before the experimenter directs her attention toward the infant,” the researchers note, “which may reflect an early form of altruism.”
Twenty infants took part in a second, similar experience, in which, rather than mirroring one another, the experimenter and the assistant bouncing the babies reacted to the music in opposite ways. “When one person is at the lowest part of their bounce, the other is at the highest, and vice-versa,” the researchers write. “Both are still moving in the same manner and at the same tempo, but in an opposite-phase relationship.”
This experience produced a similar boost in helping behavior—one that was not found among the babies who were bounced out of sync to the music.
The researchers concede that “it is not clear that music is even necessary” to produce these positive results. “However,” they add, “the evenly spaced beats in music produce an especially effective context for encouraging synchronous movement among people.”
Music, in other words, makes simultaneous swaying possible, and those shared (or mirrored) movements help us feel connected and inspire altruistic behavior.
It all makes a solid case for music’s historical importance as a way of creating group solidarity, and inspiring mutually beneficial behavior within a society. It also leads one to wonder whether we’ve lost something now that we’re all listening to our favorite sub-genres via ear buds.