We know that walking is good for many things. Brief periods of walking – say 20 to 30 minutes – can lift us into a more positive mood (Ekkekakis et al., 2000), and reduce both our subjective feelings of stress and physiological indicators of stress (such as salivary cortisol, or the concentrations of cortisol in our saliva, Gidlow et al., 2016). Short interludes of walking can also enhance how readily we find and generate diverse creative ideas (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014).
But might the benefits of walking spill-over to our interactions with other people who are walking with us? Might walking with someone – including someone we are currently in a dispute with or otherwise at odds with – help us get past stubborn road blocks in our thinking or obdurant obstacles to our onward dialogue? Could we call on the simple activity of “taking a walk together” to assist us in our struggling efforts to negotiate toward the goals that we, and our walking partner, may have? Can walking together help us resolve conflicts with another person?
Three researchers at Columbia University (Webb et al., 2017) recently teamed up to spell out some of the reasons we might expect walking together to have just such a welcome and positive spill-over effect with a walking partner. Corralling together findings and theories from several different research areas, they outlined at least three such reasons.
(1) When walking alongside another person we often, even without our awareness, align our rhythm and pacing with that of the other person, leading to a synchrony of our steps and stride. Synchrony and the mirroring of each others’ gestures and actions is associated with interpersonal coordination. In turn, such “motor synchrony” may promote a sense of positive emotional rapport and affiliation or emotional closeness with another. (For a review, see Keller et al. 2014).
(2) Walking side-by-side with another person, in joint (parallel) movement through space, carries with it a sense of cooperation rather than of confrontation, and so opens the path to the creative generation of a more integrative solution, that is, a solution that gives each party more of what she or he wants (e.g., Carnevale & Isen, 1986). During such joint movement through space, we and our partner also are jointly attending to a similar external environment, with such joint attention associated with shared interest. Indeed, research has shown that instructions that encouraged participants to walk in synchrony as a group (“walking in step” compared with walking normally) resulted in participants behaving more cooperatively in a subsequent (apparently unrelated) context designed to assess their expectations of cooperation by their counterparts (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009).
(3) Walking carries with it a concrete (physically real!) dynamic sense of forward motion, of moving forward in time and space. This fundamental physical sense of forward locomotion might echo – and evoke – a cognitive-motivational sense of a readiness to move forward and to get past obstacles, or to move from the “current state” to a “new state” (e.g., Webb 2015).
Using motion to get past commotion?
At a broader conceptual level, there is increasing evidence for the interconnectedness of different forms of cognition, emotion, and motor behavior – with perceived and enacted “alignments” on one level, such as that of motor synchrony, carrying over, and influencing alignments with our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, intentions, attitudes, and emotions (Keller et al., 2014).
Although not a “magic bullet,” taking a walk with someone to creatively hash through some thorny issues may well be worth a try.
Ekkekakis, P., Hall, E. E., VanLanduyt, L. M., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2000). Walking in (affective) circles: Can short walks enhance affect? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 245–275.
Gidlow, C. J. et al. (2016). Where to put your best foot forward: Psycho-physiological responses to walking in natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 22–29.
Keller, P. E., Novembre, G., & Hove, M. J. (2014). Rhythm in joint action: Psychological and neurophysiological mechanisms for real-time interpersonal coordination. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 369, 20130394, 1–12.
Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 1142–1152.
Webb, C. E., Rossignac-Milon, M., & Higgins, E. T. (2017). Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution? American Psychologist, 72, 374–385.
Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20, 1–5.