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‘Collective Mind’: Researchers Examine Social Effects of Watching the Same Thing Together

More than 123 million people tuned in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs (and Taylor Swift) claim yet another Super Bowl triumph on Sunday, making it the most-watched television program in history.

That’s useful grist for recently published research examining how watching the same thing can bring people together. 

It is known as the “theory of the collective mind,” which refers to the human ability to take in a collective perspective. 

Garriy Shteynberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, published the research on the theory last year, and recently expounded upon the scholarship in a piece published last month.

“Theory of mind research has traditionally focused on the ascription of mental states to a single individual. Here, we introduce a theory of collective mind: the ascription of a unified mental state to a group of agents with convergent experiences. Rather than differentiation between one’s personal perspective and that of another agent, a theory of collective mind requires perspectival unification across agents,” Shteynberg and his colleagues wrote in the study’s abstract last year.

“We review recent scholarship across the cognitive sciences concerning the conceptual foundations of collective mind representations and their empirical induction through the synchronous arrival of shared information. Research suggests that representations of a collective mind cause psychological amplification of co-attended stimuli, create relational bonds, and increase cooperation, among co-attendees.”

In his piece last month, Shteynberg noted the relevance of such research, given the increased polarization and decline in institutional trust in the United States. 

“Only about 1 in 4 Americans said that they had trust in the nation’s institutions in 2023 – with big business (1 in 7), television news (1 in 7) and Congress (1 in 12) scraping the very bottom,” he wrote.

“While institutional trust is decreasing, political polarization is increasing. The majority of Republicans (72%) and Democrats (64%) think of each other as more immoral than other Americans – a nearly 30% rise from 2016 to 2022. When compared with similar democracies, the United States has exhibited the largest increase in animus toward the opposing political party over the past 40 years.”

In a context in which we can’t agree on anything where, Shteynberg wonders, does that leave us? 

“When public trust and political consensus disappear, what remains? This question has occupied my research for the past 20 years, both as a scholar trained in social anthropology, organizational science and social cognition and as a professor of psychology,” he said.

“Researchers don’t have all the answers, but it seems that even in the absence of public trust and agreement, people can share experiences. Whether watching a spelling bee or a football game, ‘we’ still exist if ‘we’ can witness it together.”

Shteynberg goes on to explain that he and his colleagues have been driven to explore the “foundation of collective mind,” saying that what they study in the lab “is shared attention, instances when people experience the world with others.”

Those lab experiments, he says, underscore the value of “shared experiences,” saying they “amplify psychological and behavioral reactions to the world” in adults.

“My colleagues and I find that compared with attending to the world alone, or at different times than others, synchronous attention with others yields stronger memories, deeper emotions and firmer motivations. Studies show that seeing words together renders them more memorable, watching sad movies together makes them sadder, and focusing together on shared goals increases efforts toward their pursuit. Sharing attention to the behavior of others yields more imitation of that behavior,” he says.

“Critically, those experiencing something with you need not be physically present. Although in some experiments participants sit side by side, in other studies participants believe they are attending together from different lab rooms or even across the nation. Irrespective of the location, the sense that ‘we are attending’ to something together at the same time – as compared with in solitude or on your own schedule – amplifies the experience.”

Shteynberg highlights two examples of disparate sizes –– watching a movie in a theater or watching the Super Bowl –– as important instances of shared experiences with Americans, who are increasingly isolated in a society that conducts more and more business online.

“Before the advent of the internet, Americans shared attention broadly – they watched the same nightly news together, even if they did not always agree whether it was good or bad. Today, with people’s attention divided into media silos, there are more obstacles than ever to sharing attention with those with whom you disagree,” he says. “And yet, even when we can no longer agree on what ‘we’ believe, sharing attention to the basic sights and sounds of our world connects us. These moments can be relatively small, like watching a movie in the theater, or large, like watching the Super Bowl. However, remembering that we are sharing such experiences with Americans of all political persuasions is important.”

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