Class Act

Alexandra Paxton

As a "blocker," or defense player, for the Rollin' Roulettes Derby Girls, Alexandra Paxton dons fishnet stockings, red lipstick and knee-high socks. But don't be fooled by the girly get-up. As two teams of five players skate around the roller derby track, Paxton works with her teammates to stop "jammers," or scorers, through shoulder checks, hip checks or forcing them out of bounds.

"You have to anticipate where the other team's jammer will be and figure out a way to get in front of her and knock her down or off the track," says Paxton.

As it turns out, how friends and foes synchronize their movements overlaps with Paxton's research as a cognitive experimental psychology graduate student at the University of California, Merced. Specifically, she's looking at how conflict affects people's tendency to unconsciously coordinate their movements, thoughts and language patterns.

"A lot of synchrony research up until now has focused on friendly or neutral tasks — how people interact while finger-tapping or talking about TV shows," she says. "But I think there might be different ways that synchrony operates during conflict situations."

Her line of research has the potential to expand our understanding of effective communication strategies, says Paxton's adviser Rick Dale, PhD.

"The study of synchrony is helping us understand how we can use body movements and particular forms of language to influence each other and therefore communicate more effectively," he says. "Alexandra wants to understand how these patterns come into play when you're interacting with someone asymmetrically, during conflict or argument."

The bottom line questions: Will people avoid trying to synchronize with their opponent, or will they try to synchronize with them to become more persuasive?

Argument and Synchrony

The study of synchrony dates back to the 1970s, when William S. Condon, PhD, and Louis W. Sander, MD, observed that babies synchronize their movements with adult speech. Since then, other investigators have demonstrated the phenomenon's existence through expressions as simple as finger-tapping and as complex as thought and language. Some studies, for instance, show that people who tap their fingers in sync with an experimenter report liking the experimenter more than those asked to tap in a different rhythm. Other research finds that strangers paired up to solve puzzles made up of nonsense shapes develop a joint vocabulary for describing the shapes that enables them to more quickly solve the puzzle.

Dale has conducted research showing just how fundamental this tendency is. In a 2005 study in Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal, he and Daniel C. Richardson, PhD, had participants talk about TV shows while researchers tracked their eye movements. As a new set of participants listened to recorded monologues of those thoughts, their eye movements began to mimic those of speakers they couldn't even see. Moreover, the more closely their eye movements matched a given speaker's, the better they did on a listening comprehension test.

In essence, synchrony appears to help us naturally and unconsciously come together to achieve goals or simply to communicate effectively, says Paxton.

"If you and I could never achieve synchrony — if we could never coordinate our thoughts and linguistic patterns — we'd never be able to accommodate one another," she says. "Synchrony provides us with a good shorthand so we don't have to establish the same field of interaction over and over again."

Disrupting the Flow?

Paxton is taking a bold step by asking whether and how debate, argument or conflict might disrupt that subconscious flow, says Dale. "The natural bent of people is to synchronize with each other," he says. "But would a difficult conversation set up a situation where we might not want to do that? Alexandra is trying to put those puzzle pieces together."

In a preliminary look at the issue, the two have conducted a study where they prompted 20 pairs of strangers to have two conversations: a friendly chat about a favorite TV show and a debate about a topic, like the death penalty, on which they were found to hold opposite views.

Their initial analyses show that people are less likely to synchronize overall recurrent body movements — a valid measure of bodily synchrony — during an argument than during a friendly chat. However, when faced with conflict, a small minority of people redouble their efforts to tune in to their debate partner, both physically and conversationally.

"Some people jumped right in and were really excited about the debate aspect, while others were more reticent," she says. The latter group appeared to be struggling with the researcher's direction to argue and their own desire to please their partners.

"It's as if they were trying to figure out how to argue with another person and at the same time achieve synchrony with them," she says.

They're also starting to look at how people's liking for their partner relates to patterns of bodily synchrony under conditions of argument and debate, since historically liking and rapport are linked to synchrony.

"Finding these correlations will guide new studies that will test whether, for example, particular bodily synchrony strategies can cause increased communicative effectiveness or increased affiliation between people," says Dale.

Next Moves

As a second-year student who is just starting work in this area, Paxton has a number of other avenues she'd like to explore as well. One is how different argumentation styles might affect synchrony under different conditions — for example whether a more aggressive debate style decreases synchrony. She also wants to look at how synchrony changes during different kinds of arguments — with personal attacks versus philosophical debates, for instance.

Given research showing that taking another person's perspective requires a lot of cognitive energy, people may be more willing to do it if they aren't having a personal argument, she hypothesizes. "They'd have less to give up — they'd have fewer emotional ties to unravel to get to their partner's point of view," she says.

It would also be intriguing to examine roller derby through these lenses, says Paxton. For starters, it would be interesting to study how teammates learn to synchronize with one other. More compelling for her, though, is understanding the role synchrony may play in relation to a player and her opponent. The most obvious lesson players learn is how to keep information from their opponents, and therefore to be asynchronous with them. More masterful players, however, might learn how to get inside their opponents' heads and body movements and use that information to outwit them. An example is "juking," where a jammer fools a blocker into thinking she'll be passing on one side, but plans to pass on the other.

"Essentially, effective competitors may keep their friends close but their enemies closer," she says. "Of course, we don't know that yet, but I'm eager to find out."

While roller derby is a central passion, Paxton adds she was reluctant at first to share her avocation because of the sport's edgy reputation.

"I expected a lot more judgment," she says, "but my classmates are really accepting." In fact, members of her department, including Dale, arrived en masse at her team's final 2011 bout in November to cheer her on.

"It was great," she says. "People have generally been really awesome and encouraging."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.