Social flow

by Rob Horning

12 February 2010


BPS Digest has a post about recent psychological research into social flow, an extension of the concept of individual flow states (aka, being in “the zone”) to group activities.

Ever had that wonderful, timeless feeling that arises when you’re absorbed in a challenging task, one that stretches your abilities but doesn’t exceed them? Pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this state ‘flow’. Countless studies have shown that flow is highly rewarding and usually provokes feelings of joy afterwards. Little researched until now, however, is the idea of ‘social flow’, which can arise when a group of people are absorbed together in a challenging task. In a new study, Charles Walker finds that social flow is associated with more joy than solitary flow - ‘that doing it together is better than doing it alone’.

The studies the post goes on to cite are of the “approximate social behavior in the lab” variety that I tend to be skeptical of, but nevertheless I found the general idea interesting because it ties in with something that I ahve been thinking about lately in terms of online sociality. One of the things that is absent from the reciprocal affirmation behavior online is this sort of social flow. I haven’t conducted a study or anything, but even the most real-time of social interactions online tend to reinforce my feeling of separation—online chat (which I haven’t done in a long time) always seemed to me a bit like social chess, trying to plot the next witty thing to say rather than being lost in the flow of conversation. Maybe this is a personal idiosyncrasy. 

The idea of social flow evokes the possibility of a kind of group identity that can coexist with the strictly individual identity that gets constructed in online forums and through consumerism-for-display rituals. The standard argument—where Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style—is that a kind of self-consciously deviant consumerism are efforts to maintain subcultural groups, but as Hebdige points out, these efforts generally fail, are co-opted, are mediated by the stereotypes the groups want to defy, and so on. It seems the subcultural identity is probably maintained instead by these social flow states, and the identity markers are just means to achieving the mutual trust necessary to allow the flow to emerge with seeming spontaneity.

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