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Whence Collective Rituals_ A Cultural Selection Model of ...

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Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural SelectionModel of Ritualized Behavior
PIERRE LI ´ENARDPASCAL BOYER
Why do people all over the world engage in ritual practices?thearticle seeks to attempt to begin to answer that question.Ritualsare compelling because our cognitive architecture make these behaviors “attention-grabbing, intuitively-appropriate, and compelling”Furthermore, the authors posit that specific parts of ritualistic behaviors activatecognitive-emotionalsystems concerned with the detection of danger, also known as ahazard-precautionsystem, which responds to cues in the environment and rendercertainbehaviors intuitively appropriate.thissystem can activate without the presence of danger, especially duringritualsIfritualistic actions activate this system, then the actions will becomeattention-grabbingand compelling.
The Question:
Theproblem with answering the question “why do humans have rituals?” is difficult to answer because rituals have never been perfectly defined with behaviorally precise criteria.thereare types of “rituals” which share major features with another type, but do not share anymajorfeatures with a third type. And yet all are identified as “rituals.”Forthis reason, the article focuses on ritualized behavior, defined by 4 necessary factors:1. Compulsion-one must perform the particular sequence of behaviors.2. Rigidity-The sequence must be performed a particular way.3. Redundancy-The same actions are repeated inside the ritual.4. Goal Demotion-The actions are divorced from their usual goals.
What are rituals?
Humans have these collective ritualized behaviors because they are selected through cultural transmission as more natural than other possible sequences or actions. In certain circumstances, the ritualized actions performed seemed more appropriate and memorable.Thesebehaviors have some psychological effect of performers that causes them to perform the behaviors.It’snot just cultural obligations.Whatcognitive systems are activated by ritual performances?
Why do humans find ritualized behavior so compelling and attention-grabbing?
Here, obvious means obvious to anthropologists (frequent features that a decent model shouldexplain)Noobvious empirical goals: “meaningless” acts: In ritualized behavior, people do thingsrepeatedly, bolstering the idea that the actions are disconnected from their usual goals. While theentireritual has a stated purpose, the sequence of actions that “compose the ritual are notconnectedto this goal in the same way assubactionsconnect tosubgoalsin ordinary behavior.”(participants don’t perform individual actions in order to make individual goals appear).There isgenerallyno conclusive explanation for the reasoning behindsubactionsof aritual.Literalismand rigidity: Ritualized behaviors are performed in an exact way as it was prescribed,usuallyas it was done before. People strive to create a ritual performance that “matches theirrepresentationof past performances, and that they attach great emotional weight to anydeviationfrom that remembered pattern.”
“Obvious” Features of Ritualized Behavior
Repetition, reiteration, redundancy: repeated actions of the same gesture or action are typicalinritualized behavior. The action repeated and the number of times should always be identical.Therepetition is seen as intrinsically efficacious.Orderand boundaries: Compared to the unpredictable patterns of behavior exhibited in normallife, the pattern of behaviors inside rituals are highly ordered. There is usually a special spacewhereprohibitions might exist (only men can sit inside it, e.g.).Specificconcerns: There are usually concerns over cleansing and pollution. Water and fire mightbeused as a form of cleaning away some kind of pollution. Often, the whole point of a ritualmightbe to purify people of objects.
“Obvious” Features of RitualizedBehavior, cont’d
So far, anthropological theories cannot account for why rituals necessarily include features ofrigidsequences or repeated actions or any of the other obvious features.Somehave argued that rituals are symbolic, but there does not seem to be any specialinformationor meaning being passed to participants of rituals. The normal features of rituals(repetition, redundancy, pointless actions) would only obscure any message trying to betransferred.Thefollowing are the few theoretical frameworks that have tried to address why rituals containsuchspecific ritualized behavior.
Background to Ritualization
Thereare clearly similarities between human rituals and animal routines and displays.However, the preoccupation with unseen dangers and concerns over cleansing aredefinitelyhuman-specific.Thesesimilarities mainly include simplification of communication. These “displays and rituals maketransmissionof simpler messages more efficient.”Inthe animal kingdom, ritualized fights save the fitness costs of actual fights.Still, while animal displays exist for these reasons, human collective rituals cannot beexplainedso easily.Further, we cannot determine an evolutionary account for ritualized behavior. It remains to beseenwhat adaptive value rigidity of group action has.
Phylogeny of Ritual
Thismodel suggests that rituals create group cohesion through coordination between agents.however, many social activities require coordination between agents without ritualizedbehavior.butritualized behavior demonstrates commitment, agreement of actions,andcollaboration.Soit is not just cohesion, but public commitment to cohesion, which paves thewayfor other displays of commitment in the group.Moreevidence of this is found in the overall expense of many rituals—in eitherresourcesor general fitness (for example, boys might need to undergodangerousand painful activities to become a man).thesecosts point to a type of commitment that cannot be faked.
AdaptationistModels: Group Cohesion and Signaling
While these theories are interesting, they still do not explain why ritualized behaviors areattention-demandingand compelling.forthis reason, the authors turn to ritualized behaviors that are not cultural or collectiveare donefor different reasons:Children’srituals: Children engage in ritualistic behaviors between 2 and 7. The themes are consistently about perfectionism, attachment to objects, concerns over cleanliness, precise ordering of objects, and preferred routines. Any deviation to a child’s ritual is intuitively seen as dangerous.Obsessive-compulsivedisorder: people with OCD generallyperformritualized actions over and over in precise ways, usually as an intuitive response to obsessive thoughts about potential dangers (germs, for example).Life-stage-relevantintrusive thoughts: Often, people without OCD diagnoses will have intrusive thoughts about danger and appropriate courses of actions, depending on what stage of life they’re in. This is common in parents of newborns, who experience constant worry over the welfare of the child as well as uncertainty as to whether one will be responsible for harm to the infant. These fears lead to ritualized behaviors similar to OCD (checking and rechecking, in particular).
Ritualized Proper, Individual and Collective: Diverse Domains of Ritualization
Freudfound a connection between the previous private rituals and collective rituals in religion by stating that both are forms of neurotic obsession. However, this still does not solve the problem of why ritualized behaviors exist in either context.Fiskefound that the same themes recur over and over in both domains (private and collective rituals). While OCD concerns over lucky or unlucky numbers, repeated actions, symmetry, and cleanliness are considered irrational, while the same concerns are socially-acceptable in collective rituals.ToFiske, the human need for ritualized action, usually pointed towards social contexts, is hyperactive in pathology.Hebelieves that collective rituals “channel personal fears or doubts into culturally transmitted conceptual schemes, thereby making them shared and probably less” anxiety-provoking.Probablybecause rituals make the world seem simpler, more predictable, and more meaningful.Still, the individual capacities involved in rituals (scripted actions, security-related issues, etc.) can be found in other contexts. Rituals combine all these rituals in a specific process…but why?
The Fiske Hypothesis
Humansand other mammals have specific systems in our brains for dealing with potential danger, the hazard-precaution system. As humans, we need to be on the lookout for indirect cues of potential threats to reproductive success. This system seems focused on predation, intrusion by strangers, contamination, contagion, social offense, and harm to offspring (evolutionary threats).Individualintrusive thoughts and rituals are often targeted towards these evolutionary threats.Neurocogntivemodels would consider OCD a form ofhyperactivationof this system.Inthe author’s model, normal activation of this system would explain compelling precautionary behaviors in many situations (including life-cycle-stage and children’s rituals).
A NEUROCOGNITIVE MODEL OF INDIVIDUAL RITUALIZED BEHAVIOR: Potential danger and Relevant cognitive Systems
Thecomplex rules and rigid performance of rituals (do X, but not Y) turn what was once a routinized and automatic behavior (such as walking) into tightly controlled action that requires sustained attention.Thissustained action “swamps” the participant’s working memory, which prevents him for attending to stimuli and situations outside the ritualized action.Ithas also been stated that such cognitively-demanding activities push out unwanted thoughts for a little while.
Complex Ritual Rules and Working Memory
Thepremise the authors start with is that particular collective rituals are selected for, becoming culturally successful because people remember them and find them compelling enough to repeat them.Theydo so because they activate specific individual neurocognitive systems in the brainmore than other behaviors.
A Model of Collective Rituals
Thehazard-precaution system is activated only by information about potential danger (and only a few specific dangers) because of certain indirect cues in the environment.Whileonly certain inputs activate this system, it is still vulnerable to “cognitive capture,” or activation by signals that are not meant to be part of its activation repertoire. For example, a nonpoisonous butterfly may evolve the same bright colors as a poisonous butterfly, so that the colors will activate fear in potential predators…even though they should not fear a non-poisonous butterfly.Thecontention of the authors is that many aspects of collective rituals contain cues for potential danger, thereby activating the hazard-precaution system.
Cognitive Capture of the Hazard-Precaution System
Itwould seem that most people who participate in rituals do not have much information about it. They probably would not be able to justify most of the ritualized behaviors they perform.However, it’s unlikely they perform these behaviors on pure social imitation alone.Peopleconvey information triggers nonrandom inferences about the behavior they’re performing. The information manifested consists of the following elements:Availableinformation about the background situation: participants are told that a ritual should be performed, because nonperformance is dangerous. They are given info about the potential danger the rituals ward off, and these dangers overlap with the repertoire of the hazard-precaution system.Availableinformation about required course of action: People are given a precise script of actions to perform. The action descriptions involve themes that are related to the output of the hazard-precaution system (cleansing, washing, checking).
Information Available and Likely Inferences
What features of collective rituals cause cognitive capture and activate the hazard-precaution system?Occasionfor the ritual: Often, the stated purpose of a ritual is to prevent or ward off some kind of unseen danger, one that overlaps with the potential hazard repertoire. This manifests in either preventing plague, famine, disease, witchcraft, or spiritual pollution.Dangerof nonperformance: People intuitively feel it would be very wrong or dangerous to not participate in a ritual, even if the risk is not clearly specified.DetailedPrescriptions: As stated earlier, motifs such as washing and cleaning, checking and rechecking, and creating order are related to security.Theauthors posit that all these features of communicated information result in weakened activation of the hazard-precaution system. It is weaker because the danger is only told to the participant through others, as opposed to seeing evidence himself.
Recurrent Features of Collective Rituals and Cognitive Capture
Activationof hazard-precaution systems may explain other facets of collective rituals:Forcinggoal demotion: Repetition removes goal ascription from the equation. Other behaviors make goal ascription impossible (washing hands without water). These “tricks” result in goal demotion. Attention is focused on low-level, fine-grained description of action, so that sequences of actions can occur without attributing goals to each behavioral activity.Swampingof working memory: The actions performed require full focus and attention. A person who has to circle a flagpole, while never looking down has to perform 2 functions at once. He does one thing and refrains from doing another. This positive and negative prescription makes it difficult to rely on automatic routines.
Consequences: Action Representation in Collective Rituals
Aquestion remains: why are collective rituals so organized? What processes caused them to be so effective in creating personal motivations?toclarify, the authors are not implying that these ritualized behaviors triggers full activation of the hazard-precaution system.Theauthors believe that those activities with the aforementioned prescriptions and motifs will activate this system more than those that don’t. Also, this difference ensures the cultural prevalence of this kind of ceremony.Also, the people’s insistence on the potential danger of not participating fully manifests as moral threat, threat of social exclusion, or worry about misfortune—all likely to active this system.
COLLECTIVE RITUALS IN CULTURAL TRANSMISSION, Transmission: Relevance and Selection
Inthis model, ritualized behavior is considered the opposite of routinized behavior.Butin most human ceremonies, there is a combination of ritualized actions (high control, attention focus) and routinized actions (automaticity, low attention focus).Thedifference is in theattentionalfocus and division of the action flowNotethat the same ritual might involve ritualized action for a novice but routinized action for a seasoned expert.
Implications: Ritualization as the Opposite ofRoutinization
Isthere a specific human capacity and adaptation for ritualized behavior?It’sfound in all human groups (including the earliest humans and Neanderthals); it’s different from animals’ displays which makes it seem like a human adaptation; and it’s connected to security motivation, concerns that intrusive and anxious thoughts focus on, as well as the restricted range of compulsive responsesHowever, to be evolved through natural selection, rituals would need to promote reproductive potential.Whilethese rituals may reduce unmanageable anxiety by coordinating actions with others, thereby making them more meaningful, there is no evidence that this promotes reproductive successGenerally, anxiety is adaptive and functional.
COLLECTIVE RITUALS IN HUMAN EVOLUTION: Adaptation or Recruitment of Other Adaptations?
Theritual behaviors are probably not evolved behaviors from an ancestral past.Morelikely, the rituals combine single behaviors (avoiding contact with certain items, checking the environment for possible traces of intrusion, washing) that are appropriate given evolutionary hazards.Theritualistic process accumulates and distorts originally appropriate actions.
Atavistic Procedures or Evolved Precautions?
If rituals can activate the hazard-precaution system and make the rituals attention-demanding and compelling, this would make ritual a by-product of evolved cognitive architecture.Ritualscan be considered highly successful cultural “gadgets” whose recurrence in cultural evolution is function of:1. how easily they are comprehended by witnesses and2. how deeply they trigger activation of motivation systems and cognitive processes that are present in humans for other evolutionary reasons.Manyhuman cultural creations (literature, music, or visual arts) can be considered by-products of a species-specific human cognitive architecture and indirect consequence of evolution, as well.
Capacity or Disposition?
The survivors said they prayed the rosary, which is composed of several repeated verbal prayers, none of which has a specific purpose.However, the act of focusing on praying in a specific manner and direction and repeating it may have swamped the survivors’ working memory, making it difficult for them to feel the anxiety of their situation and surroundings.Also, this act of praying to heaven gave meaning to their world, allowing them to better deal with it. They would activate their hazard-precaution system in a small way and thensuccesfullydealwith it.
Relation to Andes Survivors

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Whence Collective Rituals_ A Cultural Selection Model of ...