Book Excerpt: Rituals and the Search for Order

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Anthropologists have long been aware that even rituals that seem very different and that take place in entirely unrelated domains can still have remarkable similarities. It’s not just that they involve causally opaque actions with no obvious relation to a specific outcome. The daily routines of little children, the superstitions enacted by gamblers and athletes, the prayers directed at various deities, religious and secular collective rituals, and even the pathological hyper-ritualization of those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, all seem to share some key structural elements.

First of all, ritualization is characterized by rigidity: ritual actions must always be performed in the same way (the right way). Fidelity is crucial; deviations from the script are not acceptable. In most contexts, drinking tea can be done in any number of ways. All you need is some tea leaves and some means of boiling water. But a Japanese tea ceremony must be choreographed precisely. While there may be some variation between local versions and tea masters, a strict protocol defines when guests should arrive, how they will be greeted, and where they must be seated. The tea room must have an alcove at one end, a hearth, and a hanging scroll on the wall. The hosts wear special clothes.

The accompanying article is excerpted and adapted from “Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living,” by Dimitris Xygalatas, to be published Sept. 13. (Little, Brown Spark, 320 pages)

Preparation requires specific utensils that must be handled with exquisite care: they are often only to be touched with a gloved hand and must be purified before and after each use. Guests too must be pure: they remove their shoes, bow silently, and perform ablutions. A bell rings to mark the various stages of the ceremony. The tea is served on the floor. It must be picked up with the right hand, placed on the palm of the left hand, turned clockwise, and bowed to. Myriad other rules prescribe even the minutest details, from how to hand a towel to the way the lid must be placed on the kettle. As a result, some tea ceremonies can last up to four hours.

The social importance of adhering to a script became apparent during the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made the tiniest of mistakes when administering the oath to the president. The wording mandated in the U.S. Constitution reads: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States…” Roberts, who was reciting the oath from memory, said “…that I will execute the Office of President to the United States faithfully.”

Obama seemed to realize the mistake and paused, giving the chief justice a chance to recite the oath again. Roberts once more stumbled over the words, and Obama finally declared, “I will execute the Office of President of the United States faithfully.” Although all three sentences carried identical meaning, it is the letter, not the spirit, that matters in ritual. Public controversy arose after the inauguration, which led some to question the very legitimacy of the presidency. The constitutional professor Jack Beermann told the San Francisco Chronicle that “It’s an open question whether he’s president until he takes the proper oath,” and other legal scholars expressed similar worries. Although Obama initially dismissed these concerns, he eventually met Roberts at the White House, where the president retook the oath. Members of the press were invited to document the event, which, according to the White House, was done out of “an abundance of caution.”

A second hallmark of ritualization is repetition. A mantra might be repeated 108 times; Greek Orthodox Christians cross themselves three times; and those who knock on wood always do so more than once. In addition to this internal repetition, in most cases the ritual itself is reproduced regularly. The Book of Psalms contains phrases like “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray” (55:17), or “Seven times a day do I praise thee” (119:164). Similarly, Muslims pray five times a day, soldiers raise and lower the flag daily, and schools hold yearly graduation ceremonies.

First of all, ritualization is characterized by rigidity: ritual actions must always be performed in the same way (the right way).

Finally, another characteristic of ritualization is that it involves redundancy. That is, even when ritual actions can be said to have a direct causal effect, they often go above and beyond what might be normally expected for practical purposes. Washing your hands for 20 seconds might be enough to ensure proper hygiene, but a cleansing ritual may go on for hours. In my fieldwork I have attended Hindu ceremonies that lasted up to a week and involved countless ritual actions. Similarly, the professor of philosophy Frits Staal documented the Agnicayana, a Vedic ritual performed in India, which continued for 12 days and included a total of 80 hours of collective recitations and chanting.

Observing the frequency and duration of a ceremony is fairly straightforward. But how can we measure things like rigidity and redundancy, and what counts as repetition? The traditional way of doing this would be to observe or film people’s behavior and make a note each time a new movement or sequence of movements occurred. But this requires great effort, constant attention, and many subjective decisions, so there is a lot of room for error. Luckily, technological advances now allow us to automate this process. In a 2015 study I conducted with colleagues on the effects of anxiety, we used motion-capture technology to measure ritualization in people’s actions. Our hypothesis was that, as people got more stressed, their movements would become more repetitive (think of tapping, waving, scratching, etc.), rigid (following predictable action patterns) and redundant (lasting longer than necessary).

To evaluate this hypothesis, we first needed to induce anxiety — in other words, to create a stressful situation. With that in mind, we brought people into a lab, showed them a decorative object and gave them some questions about it. Half of the study participants were told that they had three minutes to think about the answers and then discuss them with the experimenter. This was not a particularly stressful task. But the other half of the participants had a very different experience. They were told that they would have to present their answers in the form of a public speech delivered in front of a panel of expert art critics who were waiting in the next room. To prepare that speech, they would only get three minutes.

People dread being put on the spot, especially when they are unprepared and the audience is made up of experts. Such is our fear of public speaking that there is a special word for it: glossophobia. And since the study participants were also wearing heart-rate monitors, we were able to verify that their experience was indeed stressful.

Before they made their presentations, we asked our participants to clean the artifact with a piece of cloth, although it was already clean when they entered the room. This was the time during which we used our motion sensors to analyze their actions. We found that those who were more stressed displayed more ritualized behavior: their hand movements became more repetitive and predictable, engaging in the same action patterns again and again. And the more anxious people felt during the experiment, the more time they spent cleaning the object. Under the stress of the situation they began to clean obsessively even when there was nothing left to clean.

Ritualization, then, seems to come as a natural response to anxiety. And in fact, we are not the only species for which this holds true.

In 1948 the famed psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article with the peculiar title “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon,” in which he reported the results of a rather unusual experiment. Skinner had concocted an apparatus called an “operant conditioning chamber” (now more commonly known as the “Skinner box”), which he used to conduct various studies with animals. It was a highly controlled environment in which he could vary one element at a time and observe what changes it wrought on the animal’s behavior.

Skinner was interested in how organisms learn, and especially in “operant conditioning,” a form of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for a given behavior. In one experiment an electrical current ran through the floor of the box, but a lever on the wall of the box could be pressed to stop the current. When a rat was placed in the box, it would feel pain and start to move around. Sooner or later, it would stumble on the lever, and the current would stop. The rat would quickly learn to press the lever each time it was placed into the box, even when the floor was not electrified.

Another experiment was designed to look at positive reinforcement. The lever delivered a reward in the form of a food pellet. Once the animal discovered this, it would start associating it with the reward and within a few trials it would immediately rush to the lever as soon as it was let into the box.

In the 1948 experiment, Skinner placed a hungry pigeon inside the box and programmed the release mechanism to deliver the food pellets regularly, no matter what the bird did. The results astounded him: Much like gamblers and athletes, the birds began to develop elaborate rituals. Skinner wrote:

“One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrusted its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. The body generally followed the movement and a few steps might be taken when it was extensive. Another bird was conditioned to make incomplete pecking or brushing movements directed toward but not touching the floor.”

The same kinds of responses that Skinner observed in pigeons were later documented in children. In what sounds like a rather unsettling experiment, Gregory Wagner and Edward Morris placed children in a room with a mechanical clown that dispensed marble balls from its mouth; the children could later exchange these for toys. Just like Skinner’s avian subjects, the children started enacting various ritualized behaviors to get the clown to release the reward. Some of them touched the clown’s face or kissed him. Others made grimaces, and some started swinging or swirling in a dance-like fashion.

Much like gamblers and athletes, the birds began to develop elaborate rituals.

In adults, too, ritualization seems to trigger intuitive biases related to causal reasoning. A study conducted in Brazil and the U.S. found that structural aspects of rituals such as repetition and redundancy make these rituals seem more efficient. Research subjects were asked to evaluate the efficacy of simpatias, formulaic magical spells used in parts of Brazil to address all manner of practical problems, from finding love to curing toothache.

The spells varied across a number of characteristics, such as how many steps they involved, how many times those steps had to be executed, and how strict and specific they were. The researchers found that rituals that were more repetitive, rigid, and strictly defined were also perceived to be more effective in dealing with everyday problems.

Another study of simpatias conducted by the same researchers found that introducing uncertainty increased people’s perceptions of ritual efficacy. They presented two groups of subjects with a cognitive task consisting of sorting out a series of scrambled sentences. The first group was given sentences that were meant to prime them with randomness by including words such as “chaotic” or “random.” Participants in the second group unscrambled similar sentences containing neutral or other negative words, such as “lazy” or “green.” Following this task, all subjects were shown the same list of simpatias. The group that had been primed with randomness judged those spells to be more likely to work.

One interpretation of these findings may be that people’s intuitions about those rituals are dependent on cultural notions of supernatural agency. After all, magic spells are typically meant to invoke the powers of some spirit, deity, or karmic force to bring about the desired outcome. This is certainly true of many cultural rituals. But does ritualization trigger intuitions about causality independently of those cultural beliefs? To find out, my team and I conducted a study in my lab at the University of Connecticut.

Using recordings of college basketball games, we showed people videos of players shooting free-throws. After the ball left their hands, we paused the video and asked them to predict the success of each shot. Half of the time the players in those videos performed pre-shot rituals, such as spinning, bouncing or kissing the ball, or touching the soles of their shoes. These behaviors are common among basketball players. The other half of the time no rituals were enacted before the shot. In reality, participants saw exactly the same shots in both conditions, but we manipulated the camera angle to either reveal or obscure the ritualized actions.

We found that participants expected the ritualized shots to be over 30 percent more successful. This perceptual bias was consistent no matter what their level of expertise: people with no knowledge of the sport, fans who regularly watched basketball and even basketball players were equally susceptible. Moreover, this effect became stronger when the game score was more negative. The more they were losing — in other words, the less control players had over the game — the more our study participants expected the rituals to work.

These findings suggest that ritualization is a natural way to try to control the world around us. We spontaneously engage in ritualized behaviors when we face stressful and uncertain situations, and we intuitively expect those ritualized actions to have an effect. But if this sense of control is illusory, what could possibly be the benefit of it? Why would this cognitive glitch persist rather than being weeded out by natural selection?


Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who runs the experimental anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut. He has spent several years studying rituals in various parts of the world, and has been interviewed about his work by The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, PBS, and other outlets.

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