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From wearing a pair of lucky socks to following family traditions, rituals are ingrained in our daily lives.
Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and scientist at the University of Connecticut, and recently wrote Ritual: How seemingly senseless acts make life worth living.
In his book, he explores our relationships with rituals, big and small, and the social, physical and economic impacts they have on our lives.
“Rituals are at the heart of virtually all of our social institutions. Think of a judge waving a gavel or a new president being sworn in,” he writes. “They are worn by militaries, governments and corporations, at initiation ceremonies, parades and costly displays of commitment. They are used by athletes who always wear the same socks in important games, and by gamblers who kiss the dice or hold on to lucky charms when the stakes are high.”
Xygalatas argues that the need for ritual is primitive and may have played a central role in human civilization. He joined All things Considered to explain some of his findings.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the real impacts of rituals
When we study rituals from both a humanistic and scientific perspective, we come to see that even if people engage in these rituals without an explicit purpose, or even when they do have a goal, there is no particular causal link between the actions they undertake and this goal. So, for example, when I perform a rain ritual, there is no connection between my movements and the water falling from the sky.
But even so, that doesn’t mean that just because the ritual has no direct causal effect in the world doesn’t mean it has no effect in the world at all. In fact, rituals play very important functions in human societies. They help individuals work through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect with each other, they help people find meaning in their lives.
On measuring the personal impact of rituals
Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski conducted his research in a place that is now part of Papua New Guinea, the Trobriand Islands. He noticed that the local fishermen performed a lot of rituals before going out to fish in the open sea, which was dangerous, very uncertain. But before going fishing in the lagoon, they did not practice the rituals.
He therefore argued that the ritual may be a coping mechanism that helps these people ease their anxiety. And it was a proposition that anthropologists reiterated for about 100 years. But no one had the means to actually test it. So a few years ago, my colleagues and I first led people into the lab, and we stressed them out. And we used motion sensors to measure their behavior. We found that the more they were stressed, the more their behavior became ritualized. It started to become structured and repetitive.
Now, to see if it actually helped them reduce their anxiety, we went to actual temples – for example, Hindu temples in Mauritius – and measured people’s physiological responses. And there we saw that when they come into the temple and they perform these familiar prayers that they do, it helps them reduce their galvanic skin response. It helps them increase heart rate variability, it helps them reduce cortisol levels and even on the perceptual level of the person it helps them reduce their feelings of anxiety. So these rituals seem to work.
On the value of more extreme rituals, such as firewalking
Even rituals that appear to be painful, stressful, or downright dangerous seem to have tangible, and in fact measurable, utility and functions for the people performing them.
For example, in a firewalking ritual in Spain, we found that during this ritual, people’s heartbeats synchronized. It wasn’t just an effect of people moving at the same time – their heart rates would sync up no matter what they were doing at the same time; some of them were walking on fire, others were watching it.
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In fact, this effect was stronger for those who were socially closer to each other. This shows that these rituals play a role in aligning the emotional reactions of members of this community. And by aligning our experiences or aligning our emotions, these rituals can actually lead to social alignment.
How COVID has impacted our approach to rituals
The COVID pandemic has been one of the best sources of evidence for the importance of ritual. He created this unique puzzle. People turn to ritual – to find a social connection and ease their anxiety. So that was when we needed those two things the most. But at the same time, one of the most common cultural technologies available to us to address these things is no longer accessible to us, because people could no longer leave their homes, come together and celebrate these collective ceremonies so meaningful to them.
So of course what happened was that people spontaneously started either adapting traditional ceremonies – for example, we saw drive-in weddings – or creating new ceremonies. It’s like what we saw when people in big cities came out onto their balconies and started banging pots and pans together, in a show of solidarity.
This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo