Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Do People Engage in Extreme Rituals?

Extreme rituals promote attachment to a group.

It is pledge season at fraternities and sororities all over the US. New initiates into these groups spend a chunk of their first semester engaging in all kinds of activities from the mundane (wearing an article of clothing to distinguish them from other members of the group) to the extreme. Occasionally, stories of hazing rituals make the news when a student is injured. 

Fraternities and Sororities are hardly the only groups in the world that engage in extreme rituals.  Anthropologists have documented all kind of practices from a variety of cultures that can be hard to understand for outside observers.

Clearly, these rituals have to serve some function. The speculation is that the most extreme rituals create some kind of social bonding among the individuals who participate in them as well as those who observe them. A fascinating paper by Dimitris Xygalatas and several co-authors in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science presents a field study that provides some data to back up this proposal.

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This study was done in Mauritius. The people there have a number of cultural identities including their religious identity as Hindu and their national identity of being Mauritian. 

The researchers studied two rituals surrounding the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. One ritual involved a period of group singing and prayer. The second ritual was more extreme. In this ritual participants were given several piercings on their body, they had to carry heavy objects, drag a cart attached to their skin with hooks, and had to climb a mountain barefoot. In this second ritual, some people perform the ritual, while others observe it and walk alongside the performers.

Participants were tested either right after the prayer ritual or right after the extreme ritual. All participants would ultimately participate in both rituals in some way, so the results do not reflect that different types of people do the prayer and extreme rituals. The participants were given questions about their identity to determine whether they identified more as Hindu or more as Mauritian in that moment. Those involved in the extreme ritual as performers rated their level of pain. Those involved in the extreme ritual as observers rated the level of pain they perceived in others.

Finally, at the end of the study, participants were given an envelope with money (200 rupees, which is a lot of money for these participants). They were allowed to keep that money, but were also given the opportunity to donate that money to the temple. The donations were made in a private room where the participants were not being observed, but the experimenters had a way to track the amount of money given by each participant.

 The people who performed the extreme ritual identified most strongly as Mauritian rather than Hindu. Those who were tested after the prayer ritual also identified as Mauritian, but much less strongly than those who performed the extreme ritual. Those tested after observing the extreme ritual came out in between in their identity.

The participants who engaged in the extreme ritual as performers or as observers donated significantly more money to the temple than those who were tested after the prayer ritual. The amount of money people gave following the extreme ritual was correlated with the level of pain they experienced or perceived in others. The more pain, the more that they gave. 

This work suggests that extreme rituals have two important influences on communities. First, they increase people’s identity with the group, particular at the time that those rituals are being performed. Second, they make people more likely to sacrifice their own personal resources for the group. Participants were paid a lot of money in this study, and yet those who had just performed the extreme ritual gave nearly all of it back to the temple. These benefits are an important reason why cultures keep performing painful and potentially dangerous rituals. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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