How arousal impacts physiological synchrony in relationships

Summary: Different social context causes different levels of physiological arousal. However, in every condition, the autonomic nervous system went into synch between strangers, whether in low or high states of arousal.

Source: University of Colorado

A team of researchers led by a member of the Colorado School of Public Health faculty at the Anschutz Medical Campus examined what type of social interaction is required for people to display physiological synchrony–mutual changes in autonomic nervous system activity. The study also looked at whether the levels of autonomic arousal people share predicts affiliation and friendship interest between people.

The findings are published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“In a variety of situations, people appear more social with one another when their autonomic nervous systems are in sync. However, this is the first study to show that, although people display physiological synchrony across social contexts, how much arousal people share can vary, differentially impacting social outcomes like perceived similarity and friendship interest,” said Chad Danyluck, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Danyluck adds, “Physiological synchrony has been found in a variety of relationships and environments, from married couples arguing to military units and sports teams coordinating their behaviors. Understanding whether and how shared arousal brings people together may help us hone the development of programs targeting team leadership and social cohesion in work environments. I am particularly interested in the role of physiological synchrony in fostering friendship interest across ethnic and racial divides.”

Consistent with prior work, this study observed physiological synchrony in both branches of the autonomic nervous system and across cooperative and competitive social contexts. The authors general interest in physiological synchrony is in how synchrony during social interactions relates to social processes that ultimately lead to friendship.

The study found that different social contexts caused different levels of physiological arousal, meaning that the branches of the autonomic nervous system became either more or less reactive in response to the experimental task. However, in every condition, strangers quickly went “in sync” and did so in each branch of the autonomic nervous system whether they were high or low in arousal. Whether the social or physiological context of synchrony contributed to social outcomes, however, depended on which branch of the autonomic nervous system displayed synchrony.

This shows twins looking at eachother

The study also looked at whether the levels of autonomic arousal people share predicts affiliation and friendship interest between people. The image is in the public domain.

The findings show that sharing similar amounts of sympathetic arousal was sufficient to increase perceptions of similarity–a precursor to friendship–regardless of social context and no matter the arousal levels partners shared. One possible explanation for this finding is that patterns of sympathetic arousal may correlate with observable body movements (and by extension a lack of arousal may correlate with a lack of body movement) that might predict perceived similarity if shared among partners. By comparison, people for whom parasympathetic synchrony and parasympathetic reactivity was high generally reported more friendship interest when the social context permitted conversation than when it did not. In other words, when parasympathetic activity increased during a social interaction, parasympathetic synchrony only mattered for the development of friendship between strangers who could converse.

Using data from 134 strangers interacting in pairs, the researchers manipulated two features of social context to test their impact on synchrony in sympathetic and parasympathetic reactivity. Participants completed a knot-tying task within a collective reward (“cooperation”) or individual reward (“competition”) framework while conversing or not (“talking” condition). Autonomic reactivity varied by features of social context. Synchrony occurred across social contexts in both autonomic branches. The researchers then examined how synchrony predicted affiliation.

The research was conducted in partnership with Elizabeth Page-Gould at the University of Toronto.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
University of Colorado
Media Contacts:
Julia Milzer – University of Colorado
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Social and Physiological Context can Affect the Meaning of Physiological Synchrony”. Chad Danyluck & Elizabeth Page-Gould.
Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44667-5

Abstract

Social and Physiological Context can Affect the Meaning of Physiological Synchrony

Survival of many species, from insects and birds to human and non-human mammals, requires synchronized activity. Among humans, synchrony occurs even at the level of autonomic functioning; people interacting often show mutual, simultaneous changes in activity of the sympathetic or parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. Critically, autonomic reactivity predicts many mental states and, when synchronized, may reflect higher-order social processes like affiliation. Here, using data from 134 strangers interacting in pairs, we manipulated two features of social context to test their impact on synchrony in sympathetic and parasympathetic reactivity. Participants completed a knot-tying task within a collective reward (“cooperation”) or individual reward (“competition”) framework while conversing or not (“talking” condition). Autonomic reactivity varied by features of social context. Synchrony occurred across social contexts in both autonomic branches. We then examined how synchrony predicted affiliation. Sympathetic synchrony alone predicted affiliation yet social context and parasympathetic reactivity moderated associations between parasympathetic synchrony and affiliation. Thus, social and physiological context of parasympathetic synchrony predicted affiliation better than parasympathetic synchrony alone. We argue that social context and the degree of physiological reactivity underlying physiological synchrony, not the mere existence of physiological synchrony, are key to interpreting physiological synchrony as a social process.

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