Matt J. Rossano: The Ritual Species

Mortal Rituals

This week our featured book is Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution, by Matt J. Rossano. (And don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of the book!)

In an August article in Psychology Today, Matt J. Rossano wrote about how rituals enhance the bond between participants of a community.

In the article, Rossano highlights that “archaeologists have recently found evidence that Neanderthals may have taught Homo sapiens some complex tool-making skills (Soressi, et al. 2013). What appears to make Homo sapiens unique is our ability to construct complex, well-coordinated, and highly cooperative social groups.” This difference, he states, allowed Homo sapiens to effectively competitively evolve vis-à-vis the Neanderthals during the Ice-Age.

He also mentions a variety of studies on rituals to supplement his article. The first study discussed the links between ritual intensity and commitment to a particular community: “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.” Rossano suggests that successfully experiencing such traumatic rituals serve as an important indicator to determine whether the individual will remain committed to a group and greater the intensity of the rituals, better the chances of ascertaining bonding to the community. To exemplify his point, he states that “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.”

The second study focused on how “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).” The study found that ritualized activities with a significant degree of behavioral synchrony enhanced trust, promoted positive tendencies such as altruism and lent to greater bonding 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.).”

Rossano sheds light on another study (Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2011) with a similar theme where “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).” The study revealed that the participants who exhibited synchronous movements shared a stronger bond and feeling of compassion for each other. This was primarily attributed to the “the perceived similarity factor that played the more critical role (compared to the liking factor) in producing feelings of compassion and altruistic behavior.”

Rossano concludes by stating that humans are social creatures and rituals are still very much prevalent today so as to develop a sense of belonging and connection between the participants of a community. In addition to the positives of rituals in a community, he also highlights the negatives. “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.”

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