Let’s say you recently marched with 3.2 million people, celebrated a 108-year wait for a World Series, or raved deep into the night. The contagious euphoria you felt has a name: “collective effervescence,” coined a century ago by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. It’s that glowy, giddy feeling where your sense of self slackens, yielding to a connection with your fellow, synchronized humans.
In an instance of sublime timing, I caught SUNY Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel’s presentation about collective effervescence at the the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference on Saturday. According to her forthcoming research, these effervescent experiences fill the human need for belonging in a way that most social psychology research — so long preoccupied with couples, families, and small groups — has tended to overlook. It underscores how customs as ancient as pilgrimages and feast days, and modern as protests and pro sports, help people to lead happier, connected, and more personally meaningful lives.
Gabriel, who was initiated into effervescence by following Phish during her grad-school years, said it’s the sort of thing most people experience without ever considering. Think about why people go to concerts, for instance: The sound is loud, the drinks expensive, the people sweaty, and you can hear the same songs at home. “What is so positive about being in the spot where the music is made?” she said in an interview. While you don’t say to yourself that you’re going to the show to fulfill your need for collective effervescence, the need is being met.
“It’s a special experience, that feeling of connection, of being in that giant crowd,” she says, recalling her Phishhead days. You and everybody else in the stadium knows the songs, and when you feel the notes coming together, you experience them collectively. In a less sweaty sense, nerds assemble at Comic Con and psychology conferences to feel that same connection — even if they don’t know everybody (or anybody) there.
The data backs this up. In an in-press article for Psychological Assessment, Gabriel and her colleagues developed a scale called the Tendency for Effervescent Assembly Measure, or TEAM, which asks people to rate their agreement with statements like “When I attend a wedding, I feel a connection to the other people there” and “Having giant blizzards or other events that close down a city or area are bad, but the feeling of connection to neighbors and even other strangers going through the same thing almost makes them worth it.”
When the researchers administered TEAM to hundreds of university students and online volunteers, the correlations were striking. As expected, people with high TEAM scores had more collective experiences in their lives, had more fun at them, wanted more of them, and were more likely to say they’d had such an experience recently. Yet even if a someone with a high TEAM score hadn’t gotten their hit of mass elation in the past month, they still had higher feelings of social connectedness and well-being than those with a low TEAM. A high score was linked to less loneliness, plus greater meaning and spiritual transcendence — a phenomenon that appears to be a healthy part of a well-balanced psychic diet.
With collective effervescence, Gabriel sees parallels to another research interest of hers: the parasocial bonds that people form with celebrities and fictional characters from reading rich narratives. For instance, she’s found that with Harry Potter, the reader is immersed into a community of fictional wizards, providing a sense of belonging. Humans, the hypersocial creatures that we are, love to feel a part of something — whether it’s the fight against Lord Voldemort or one against Donald Trump.
Researchers are still sorting out how collective effervescence happens at a physical level. To me, it looks like a case of interpersonal synchrony, where people sharing an experience have their very physiology fall into a collective rhythm, like the experimental anthropology findings where firewalking rituals literally sync up the heart rates of a village. Going forward, Gabriel would like to explore what collective effervescence does to the religious and political movements it’s a part of — for instance, would a day of protests on all seven continents actually push political action? With the record-breaking women’s march, America looks to be in the midst of yet another grand experiment.