Thursday, September 26, 2013

What makes us think rituals work?

One of the biggest difficulties that we have to deal with is that most of the things that happen to us are utterly out of our control.  Cultures have developed many strategies for dealing with this fact.  One of the most fascinating of these strategies is the creation of rituals.

Obviously, religions have lots of rituals that involve sequences of actions and objects.  Enter a Catholic church, for example, and there are stations for people to pray and light candles.  Handwritten notes may also be included. 

Rituals are not limited to religions, though.  Baseball players have actions they go through to prepare for an at-bat.  Starting in the on-deck circle, some players may repeat the same actions, swinging a weighted bat in a particular pattern and stretching in the same way.  As they enter the batter’s box, they may continue with a pattern of clearing dirt and practice swings.  All of these patterns are aimed to increase hitting success.

Do people have intuitions about what makes a ritual effective?

This question was addressed in a fascinating paper by Cristine Legare and Andre Souza published in Cognition in 2012.  They started by exploring a particular cultural ritual in Brazil called a simpatia.  Simpatias are formulas that people use to help them solve problems ranging from illnesses to bad luck.  For example, a formula might say

In a metal container, put the leaves of a white rose.  After that, set fire to the leaves.  Get the remaining ash from the leaves and put it in a small plastic bag.  Take the small plastic bag and leave it at a crossroad.  Repeat the procedure for seven days in a row.

These ritual formulas are common in Brazil, though (as in most cultural tools) not everyone believes in them.  In one study, Legare and Souza made up simpatias that varied in a nine different ways such as the number of steps that had to be carried out, whether people had to eat something as a part of it.  Brazilians were read versions of these simpatias and were asked how effective they thought they would be. 

Three aspects of the simpatias seemed to have the biggest influence on people’s beliefs about whether they worked.  First, formulas with more steps were thought to be more effective than those with fewer steps.  Formulas that required steps to be repeated were more effective than those that required no repetition.  Finally, formulas that had to be performed at a specific time (such as during the full moon) were thought to be more effective than those that could be performed at any time.  

Brazilians are not taught specifically about the construction of simpatias, but it is possible that these beliefs reflect something specific about Brazilian culture.  To test this possibility, Legare and Souza also tested a group of college students in the United States.  Because the simpatias were unfamiliar to these students, overall they did not think that they would be very effective.  However, like the Brazilians, the Americans thought that having repetitions and having many steps in the procedure would make the simpatias more effective than having no repetitions and few steps.  Specificity of the time of day did not affect judgments of American students significantly.  

What is going on here?

People seem to have some causal beliefs about the way that rituals work.  Some amount of effort seems to be required to make rituals effective.  More steps and repetition are both factors that increase effort.  Perhaps that effort signals a degree of commitment. 

It is less clear why time specificity would matter, though many religions require that specific prayers be said at particular times of the day or even specific times of the year.  Time specificity also signals a particular type of commitment, because the person performing the ritual has to wait for the right time.

These findings are interesting, though they raise a host of new questions.  For example, what role to rituals play in helping people to reduce anxiety about things that cannot be controlled?  Do people performing rituals end up behaving in ways that may bring about the desired outcomes? 

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