Groups and emotional arousal mediate neural synchrony and perceived ritual efficacy

Philip S. Cho, Nicolas Escoffier, Yinan Mao, April Ching, Christopher Green, Jonathan Jong, Harvey Whitehouse

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    We present the first neurophysiological signatures showing distinctive effects of group social context and emotional arousal on cultural perceptions, such as the efficacy of religious rituals. Using a novel protocol, EEG data were simultaneously recorded from ethnic Chinese religious believers in group and individual settings as they rated the perceived efficacy of low, medium, and high arousal spirit-medium rituals presented as video clips. Neural oscillatory patterns were then analyzed for these perceptual judgements, categorized as low, medium, and high efficacy. The results revealed distinct neural signatures and behavioral patterns between the experimental conditions. Arousal levels predicted ratings of ritual efficacy. Increased efficacy was marked by suppressed alpha and beta power, regardless of group or individual setting. In groups, efficacy ratings converged. Individual setting showed increased within-participant phase synchronization in alpha and beta bands, while group setting enhanced between-participant theta phase synchronization. This reflected group participants' orientation toward a common perspective and social coordination. These findings suggest that co-presence in groups leads to a social-tuning effect supported by between-participant theta phase synchrony. Together these neural synchrony patterns reveal how collective rituals have both individual and communal dimensions. The emotionality of spirit-medium rituals drives individual perceptions of efficacy, while co-presence in groups signals the significance of an event and socially tunes enhanced agreement in perceptual ratings. In other words, mass gatherings may foster social cohesion without necessarily requiring group-size scaling limitations of direct face-to-face interaction. This could have implications for the scaling computability of synchrony in large groups as well as for humanistic studies in areas such as symbolic interactionism.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number2071
    Number of pages13
    JournalFrontiers in Psychology
    Publication statusPublished - 26 Oct 2018

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright © 2018 Cho, Escoffier, Mao, Ching, Green, Jong and Whitehouse. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

    Copyright © and Moral Rights are retained by the author(s) and/ or other copyright owners. A copy can be downloaded for personal non-commercial research or study, without prior permission or charge. This item cannot be reproduced or quoted extensively from without first obtaining permission in writing from the copyright holder(s). The content must not be changed in any way or sold commercially in any format or medium without the formal permission of the copyright holders.


    • Brain
    • Efficacy
    • Interpersonal synchrony
    • Religion
    • Ritual

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Psychology(all)


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