Much has been written in recent weeks about the militarization of America’s police, who are increasingly using armored vehicles and powerful, high-tech weaponry. Pundits and scholars have pondered whether possession of this weaponry influences the mindset of policemen, perhaps driving them to use more aggressive tactics.
That remains to be seen. But new research finds a basic component of military culture that is also commonly used by police riot squads—marching in unison—changes the way one perceives a potential enemy.
A study by anthropologists Daniel Fessler and Colin Holbrook of the University of California-Los Angeles reveals that men engaged in the simple act of walking in lockstep view potential opponents as weaker and less intimidating. And that perception, they write in the journal Biology Letters, may inspire more aggressive behavior.
If men “feel less vulnerable and more powerful, and their potential foe more easily vanquished,” it may very well make them “more likely to use violence than they otherwise would be.”
“Experiencing moving in unison with another person appears to make us paint a less threatening picture of a potential assailant,” Fessler told UCLA’s Meg Sullivan. “They loom less large and formidable in the mind’s eye.”
“Simply walking in sync may make men more likely to think, ‘Yeah, we could take that guy!’”
The study featured 96 men between the ages of 18 and 29. Each of them walked 244 meters (about 0.15 of a mile) along a pathway with another man, a research assistant posing as a fellow participant. Roughly half were asked to walk in sync with their partner, while the others were instructed to walk at a natural pace.
Immediately afterwards, all filled out a survey which featured a mug shot of a man with an angry expression on his face. They were asked to estimate his height, size, and muscularity. In addition, participants reported their emotional state and the extent to which they felt emotionally connected to their walking partner.
Those who had been walking in sync perceived the angry man as smaller and shorter than those who had been walking at their own pace. “Synchrony diminished the perceived fighting capacity of the foe,” the researchers write.
Not surprisingly, walking in sync also increased bonding, but Fessler and Holbrook report this effect was not related to the tendency to see a foe as less formidable.
The motivational benefits of this effect for a military unit are obvious. But the down side is as well: It may lead soldiers to underestimate the enemy’s capacities.
And for police—who generally face off against citizens of their own community, as was recently seen in Ferguson, Missouri—this psychological effect could prove highly troublesome. After all, Fessler notes, if men “feel less vulnerable and more powerful, and their potential foe more easily vanquished,” it may very well make them “more likely to use violence than they otherwise would be.”
“Given the ubiquity of institutionalized synchronization in contexts as diverse as athletic competitions and police formations, this disturbing possibility merits investigation,” the researchers conclude.
As we’ve reported, a growing body of research suggests moving together in rhythm can create a sense of solidarity, and increase cooperative behavior within one’s group. But its impact on interactions between groups—particularly when there is hostility or suspicion involved—appears to be much more problematic.
A precision marching band that inspires solidarity with a sports team is one thing. But a formation of armed policemen facing a crowd of angry demonstrators, and feeling a false sense of self-confidence, is something else altogether.