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The Ritual Species

Ritual builds community. Intense rituals build even stronger communities.

Archaeologists have recently found evidence that Neanderthals may have taught Homo sapiens some complex tool-making skills (Soressi, et al. 2013). Another blow to the theory that there were major cognitive differences between us and them. There were differences, but they were subtle and more social than cognitive. What appears to make Homo sapiens unique is our ability to construct complex, well-coordinated, and highly cooperative social groups. This was our critical edge when Homo sapiens and Neanderthals jockeyed for supremacy in Ice-age Europe. So how do you build more complex social groups? Some recent studies have highlighted the crucial role of ritual in community-building.

The first study asked if ritual intensity was related to community commitment. This has long been an assumption of many groups such as fraternities and the military where hazing or stressful initiations were (and maybe still are) common. Additionally, painful and traumatic rites of passage have long histories in many traditional societies. The idea behind all this was, of course, that putting someone through hell as a prerequisite to group membership demonstrated their commitment to the group. Moreover, if a cohort goes through hell together they become intensely bonded to one another.

Researchers studied the Hindu festival of Thaipusam on the small Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius (Xygalatas et al, 2013). The festival involves both low intensity ritual activity, such as praying and dancing, and high intensity ritual activity such as body piercing with needles, hooks, and skewers. Both high and low ritual intensity participants were allowed to make charitable donations to a public fund and they were queried about the strength of their emotional connection to their social groups. High intensity ritual participants made significantly greater charitable donations and identified more strongly with their Mauritanian nationality.

In the second study, researchers looked at ritualized activities with varying degrees of behavioral synchrony – that is, the extent to which participants moved together in a complementary fashion (you do X as I do Y) or an exact fashion (we all do X together) or not at all (Fischer et al., 2013). They found that ritual activity that involved greater synchronous movements produced more generous contributions to a public fund as well as higher levels of perceived trust and emotional connectedness (“oneness”) among participants. Synchronous movement also produced a greater sense of shared sacred values among participants which appears to motivate other prosocial behaviors (i.e. increased generosity, trusting, etc.).

These studies come on the heals numerous previous ones that have documented how moving together increases liking, perceived similarity and “oneness” among the participants, which can in turn produce increased altruism. For example, in one study (Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2011), participants engaged in either synchronous or asynchronous finger-tapping. Later, those who tapped synchronously reported having greater liking for one another and greater perceived similarity. In an additional part of the study, the participants were made aware of the fact that some study participants (the “victims”) had been assigned an onerous task and that they could relieve them of some of that task (i.e. they could behave altruistically toward them). Participants expressed significantly more compassion toward victims with whom they had earlier moved in synchrony and they extended greater altruism toward them. Statistical analyses indicated that it was the perceived similarity factor that played the more critical role (compared to the liking factor) in producing feelings of compassion and altruistic behavior.

No one is an island. Humans, more so than any other species, need other humans. Indeed, to truly be human, we must be connected to supportive, cooperative communities. Ritual is the evolutionary mechanism by which we have always created those communities. However, there is a potential dark side to this. Studies have also found that increased ritual participation can sometimes lead to greater out-group antagonism. Group competition was also a part of our evolutionary past. A future challenge in our use of ritual is that of promoting its best outcomes while minimizing its dangers.


Xygalatas, D et. al. (in press). Extreme Rituals Promote Prosociality. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612472910

Ronald Fischer, R., Callander R., Reddish, P. & Bulbulia, J. (2013). How Do Rituals Affect Cooperation?An Experimental Field Study Comparing Nine Ritual Types. Human Nature, 24, 115-125

Soressi, M. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2013)

Valdesolo, P. & DeSteno, D.A. (2011). Synchrony and the Social Tuning of Compassion. Emotion, 11, 262-266.

intense rituals makes good citizens