Creating the Sacred from the Profane: The Psychological Mechanisms, Moderators, and Outcomes of Mass Singing Events Held by Koolulam
September 1, 2022 - August 31, 2025
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Director: Shira GabrielInstitution: The Research Foundation for The State University of New York
Six years ago, Or Taicher, an Israeli artist, was scrolling through YouTube when he came across a video that would change his life. In the video, thousands of religious Jews gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Swaying, shoulder to shoulder, their voices joined together as one, they sang. Despite being a secular Jew, Taicher was moved. He felt the unity and spirituality and he wondered: could people sing together in a secular setting and feel that same unity and spirituality? Taicher partnered with musical director Ben Yaffet and CEO Michal Shahaf to create Koolulam, an organization which has now brought mass singing events to over 350,000 people all over the world.
Around the same time, in her laboratory at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, social psychologist Shira Gabriel had recently participated in an interdisciplinary research program on prayer. She was moved when other researchers presented images and videos of people praying in mass gatherings. It occurred to her that psychologists were missing the opportunity to empirically study these events. She drew inspiration from sociologist Emile Durkheim, who argued that when people engage in these experiences they feel a sense of collective effervescence, which he defined as a feeling of connection to others and a “sensation of sacredness.” She began studying that process through a modern, empirical, psychological lens.
This project, from a team led by Gabriel, will involve a melding of these two areas – an empirical examination of the role that collective effervescence plays in Koolulam events. It will investigate the effect of group singing events on spirituality, connection to others, acceptance of others, and psychological wellbeing, and whether the link between these outcomes and collective singing is mediated by collective effervescence.
Research will be in three phases, and will involve a mix of field and laboratory studies designed to capitalize on the strengths of each method. Phase 1 will involve collecting data from former participants in Koolulam events on their experience of the event, wellbeing related outcomes, and a number of individual differences variables.The second phase of research will capture real-time data from people one week before, immediately after, two weeks after, and six months after participation in a Koolulam event organized in New York City and Buffalo, NY. Their data will be compared to those from a matched control group. The final phase will involve laboratory-based experimental research to examine specific elements of mass singing events in a more controlled setting.
The researchers hypothesize that singing in collectives will foster a sense of collective effervescence, which will then lead to increased spirituality, wellbeing, and acceptance of others. The team hopes this scholarship will spur other researchers to explore ways that spiritual practices can occur in “everyday life” and how important that can be to human flourishing. They also believe this research will be helpful for religious and secular organizations that wish to harness the power of collective singing.
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