Walking in Formation Makes Men Feel More Powerful

Men who walk in lockstep see outsiders as less threatening

A protestor holding his hands up chants "Hands up, don't shoot" as SWAT police unit stands guard during protests against police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the United States, around midnight of Aug. 18, 2014. Shen Ting/Xinhua Press/Corbis

From the ancient Greeks to modern riot police, men moving into “battle,” either against an invading Persian army or to control a protest, often do so as a unit—shoulder to shoulder, their legs moving in lockstep. To outsiders, such formation marching presents a commanding aura, an appearance of unity, cohesion and power. For the men moving in formation it does something similar: it makes their enemies feel smaller, weaker. It could even, suggest two psychologists, make the men in the unit more prone to aggression.

According to a new study, an experiment suggests that men who walk with others in synchronized movements “envisioned a purported criminal as less physically formidable than did men who engaged in this task without synchronizing.” Stretching from the study's specific findings, the scientists suggest that this could make men, hopped up on power, more likely to be aggressive, says the Washington Post.

In a release about the research the University of California says that the idea has obvious relevance to the events that recently took place in Ferguson, Mo. Much attention has been paid to police SWAT team's use of military-grade gear. But SWAT is an acronym for “special weapons and tactics.” “[W]hat if the simple act of marching in unison — as riot police routinely do — increases the likelihood that law enforcement will use excessive force in policing protests?” asks UCLA.

In their experiment the researchers walked around the UCLA campus with one of 96 undergraduate male students. Sometimes they walked synchronously, sometimes they just walked casually. According to UCLA, the young men who walked synchronously tended to judge a perceived threat as weaker than did men who walked normally. Other recent research, says UCLA, says that people who feel more powerful will tend to behave more aggressively.

Now, there's an obvious caveat as to how this would apply to military forces or riot police. Undergraduate students are not highly-trained SWAT teams. Making the jump from the idea that police may feel more powerful when they're dressed to the nines in combat fatigues, assault rifles, riot shields and are moving as a heavily-armored human wall, to the assumption that they will then behave more aggressively isn't one that is directly supported by the research. They may feel more powerful but, theoretically, training would curb the enhanced aggressive tendencies.

Alternatively, since we're just speculating anyway, it's possible that standing in formation could curb aggression. If the opponent seems less threatening, maybe that heavily armored cop would be less likely to freak out and do something dumb?

Speculation aside, the research adds to the growing evidence that people's perception of risk changes based on what they themselves are doing—such as a recent study that suggested that people who are holding guns are more likely to assume that others are as well.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.