A disaster occurred during the morning commute in London on July 7, 2005, when terrorists attacked the city’s vast transportation network. Suicide bombers detonated three bombs on underground trains and a fourth on a double-decker bus. Fifty-two people, including the terrorists, were killed and more than 700 were injured.
After the bombs exploded, thousands of passengers, many of whom were wounded, were left stunned, surrounded by smoke, darkness, and debris. In this horrific situation, one might have expected mass panic—people pushing and shoving each other out of the way, abandoning the casualties in a mad rush to escape. Pandemonium. Chaos.
But that’s not what happened. After the London bombings, a team of researchers led by British social psychologist John Drury, who has conducted intensive investigations into how crowds of people respond during emergencies, interviewed survivors and scoured public accounts in which people talked about what had happened. Although it was not uncommon for survivors to use the word panic to describe the aftermath of the explosions, the term was used most often to describe a natural emotional state of fear and shock rather than disordered or frantic behavior.
People’s demeanor during the crisis was frequently characterized as calm, orderly, and controlled despite the turmoil around them. One interviewee said:
“It was quite a calm calm [sic] evenly dispersed evacuation there wasn’t people running down the train screaming their heads [off]. It was very calm and obviously there was people crying but generally most sort of people were calm in that situation, which I found amazing.”
In addition, survivors reported a sense of unity with others:
“I felt that we’re all in the same boat together…it was a stressful situation and we’re all in it together and the best way to get out of it was to help each other…I felt quite close to the people near me.”
Consistent with the research on shared identity and helping, mutual support was common. Newspapers carried stories about 57 people who described helping others and 17 people who described being helped; 140 additional people witnessed acts of helping.
Only three reports included eyewitnesses describing selfish behavior.
Emergencies and disasters are extreme events, but we can learn much from them about how identity dynamics operate under more normal, less terrifying circumstances. A sense of common fate produces a shared identity, the knowledge that we, together, are part of a group. In turn, that shared identity produces solidarity and the ability to work together collectively. When they cohere, shared identities become foundations on which people can coordinate and cooperate. It allows them to face and overcome a crisis that might have been difficult to address alone.
A sense of common fate produces a shared identity, the knowledge that we, together, are part of a group. In turn, that shared identity produces solidarity and the ability to work together collectively.
In recent research, we have started to investigate what happens to our brains when we work together in solidarity, as opposed to as individuals. We wanted to examine if psychological groups of people would find it easier to get on the same neural wavelength and by doing so outperform mere collections of people—sets of individuals who happen to be in the same place at the same time.
In one study, led by Ph.D. student Diego Reinero, we invited 174 people to the lab to complete a series of difficult tasks. In one task, for example, they were given a list of supplies and asked to rank them in order of importance for surviving a plane crash in the heart of winter. Some of the choices are counterintuitive unless you are a survival expert, and it takes careful reasoning to make good decisions.
For every session, four participants came to the lab at the same time. Before we let them loose with the problem-solving tasks, we randomly assigned each set of four to either complete the tasks collaboratively as a group or try their best as individuals.
To create feelings of solidarity in the collaborative groups, we told them that they would be competing against other teams on the problem-solving tasks. We also put some money on the line: if their team was ranked in the top five percent of all teams, they would receive a $200 bonus to be split equally among them ($50 each). We then asked them to create a team name and had them tap along in unison to some funky music while facing one another. Moving to music is an ancient tool for helping people feel a sense of collective purpose.
In contrast, participants assigned to work as individuals were told they would be working alone and competing against other individuals on the tasks. Individuals ranked in the top 5 percent would receive a $50 bonus. We then asked each of them to create a personal code name and had them turn away from the group to tap along to the same music as they privately listened to it on their own headphones. This was designed to make them feel that they were in a dog-eat-dog world of individual competition.
You might notice some uncomfortable parallels between this condition and organizations or workplaces you are familiar with. Many companies, schools, and even families structure their incentives a lot like our individualistic condition. People compete against one another for awards and cultivate individual identities. In open-plan office spaces, many employees don headphones to tune out others and curate their own mental experiences.
It is often assumed that people perform best when they can maximize their own outcomes. But knowing what we do about identity, we suspected that people might actually perform better when they were working together in solidarity than alone in competition with one another.
As participants prepared for their tasks, our research team placed a small headset (a wireless electroencephalography or EEG cap) on each of them to record the electrical activity of their brains as they completed the study. These devices are fairly small and fit on the head almost like a small crown. Once the study was under way, many participants seemed to completely forget about them.
At first, people who were working together in groups were no more synchronized with their teammates than those who were working as individuals. But as the study went on, the brains of people working together on a team started to mirror one another.
As they worked through the tasks, we were able to measure participants’ patterns of brain activity to see how much they resembled one another. We compared each person’s brain activity throughout the study to the patterns exhibited by everyone else completing the tasks at the same time in order to assess levels of neural synchrony.
When people engage in a task, electrical activity in the brain oscillates at different frequencies. Sometimes called “inter-brain coupling,” neural synchrony between people occurs when the patterns of electrical activity in their separate brains are oscillating in tandem with one another. In other words, it is a measure of how much their brains are firing in similar ways at the same time.
The first thing we noticed when we analyzed the data was that the groups working together as teams outperformed the sets of individuals on almost every task. They came to better solutions on the survival task, as well as on sudoku puzzles, photographic memory, brainstorming, and word unscrambling, than the average individual working alone.
In other words, being on a team consistently produced better results than working alone.
People also cooperated more when they were in a meaningful group than when they were merely part of a set of individuals. We told everyone in each session that $10 of their winnings could be donated to the four people in their group. All of the donated money would be pooled together, doubled, and then split equally among all four people. So, if all four donated the full $10, it would be doubled (by our research team) and each person would walk away with $20. We found that 74 percent of people in the team condition donated the full $10 to their group, but only 51 percent of people in the individual condition did the same.
The only task where teams performed worse than individuals was a simple typing assignment in which working together and coordinating responses slowed them down. Teamwork was not always the solution, but it certainly worked better most of the time.
When we looked at brain activity, we noticed a similar pattern. At first, people who were working together in groups were no more synchronized with their teammates than those who were working as individuals. But as the study went on, the brains of people working together on a team started to mirror one another. By the end of the study, there was a clear difference in the degree of brain synchrony for teams versus individuals.
Teams that were more synchronized had the best performance on the tasks—they were superior at collective decision-making.
Even more important, this brain synchrony was related to performance! Teams that were more synchronized had the best performance on the tasks—they were superior at collective decision-making.
Research into inter-brain coupling, especially in groups, is in its infancy. But previous research has found that synchrony between people’s neural responses is higher when they pay attention to the same things and coordinate actions. It is plausible that our more synchronized teams were ones in which members had managed to create a sustained collective focus around solving the challenges at hand.
Our findings suggest that the importance of getting everyone “on the same wavelength” is not merely metaphorical. Teams that literally achieved that state, where people’s brains operated in rhythm, outperformed teams that were out of sync. Indeed, we found that neural synchrony was better at predicting teams’ performance than their members’ emotional intelligence or their liking for the group.
Sets of individuals, whether they are participants in a lab experiment, passengers on the subway, or people who live in the same neighborhood are groups in potentia. Individuals, even in the same spaces and doing the same sorts of things, remain separate until events conspire to create feelings of common fate and generate shared social identities. This distinction is subtle, but important, as collections of people—neighbors, coworkers, classmates—may not yet be tapping into the power of shared identity. With a crisis, leadership, or incentives that spark collective focus and action, they can unlock opportunities to trust each other more readily, coordinate more easily, and better mobilize in pursuit of their common interests.