Whence Collective Rituals?
A Cultural Selection
Model of Ritualized
PIERRE LI ´ENARD
Why do people all over the world engage in ritual
◦ the article seeks to attempt to begin to answer that
◦ Rituals are compelling because our cognitive architecture
make these behaviors “attention-grabbing, intuitively-
appropriate, and compelling”
Furthermore, the authors posit that specific parts of
ritualistic behaviors activate cognitive-emotional systems
concerned with the detection of danger, also known as a
hazard-precaution system, which responds to cues in the
environment and render certain behaviors intuitively
this system can activate without the presence of danger,
especially during rituals
If ritualistic actions activate this system, then the actions will
become attention-grabbing and compelling.
What are rituals?
The problem with answering the question “why
do humans have rituals?” is difficult to answer
because rituals have never been perfectly defined
with behaviorally precise criteria.
◦ there are types of “rituals” which share major features
with another type, but do not share any major features
with a third type. And yet all are identified as “rituals.”
◦ For this reason, the article focuses on ritualized behavior,
defined by 4 necessary factors:
1. Compulsion-one must perform the particular sequence of
2. Rigidity-The sequence must be performed a particular
3. Redundancy-The same actions are repeated inside the
4. Goal Demotion-The actions are divorced from their usual
Why do humans find ritualized
behavior so compelling and attention-
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
These behaviors have some psychological
effect of performers that causes them to
perform the behaviors.
◦ It’s not just cultural obligations.
◦ What cognitive systems are activated by ritual
“Obvious” Features of Ritualized Behavior
Here, obvious means obvious to anthropologists
(frequent features that a decent model should explain)
No obvious empirical goals : “meaningless” acts: In
ritualized behavior, people do things repeatedly,
bolstering the idea that the actions are disconnected
from their usual goals. While the entire ritual has a
stated purpose, the sequence of actions that “compose
the ritual are not connected to this goal in the same way
as subactions connect to subgoals in ordinary behavior.”
(participants don’t perform individual actions in order to
make individual goals appear). There is generally no
conclusive explanation for the reasoning behind
subactions of a ritual.
Literalism and rigidity : Ritualized behaviors are
performed in an exact way as it was prescribed, usually
as it was done before. People strive to create a ritual
performance that “matches their representation of past
performances, and that they attach great emotional
weight to any deviation from that remembered pattern.”
“Obvious” Features of Ritualized Behavior, cont’d
Repetition, reiteration, redundancy : repeated
actions of the same gesture or action are typical in
ritualized behavior. The action repeated and the
number of times should always be identical. The
repetition is seen as intrinsically efficacious.
Order and boundaries : Compared to the
unpredictable patterns of behavior exhibited in
normal life, the pattern of behaviors inside rituals
are highly ordered. There is usually a special space
where prohibitions might exist (only men can sit
inside it, e.g.).
Specific concerns : There are usually concerns over
cleansing and pollution. Water and fire might be
used as a form of cleaning away some kind of
pollution. Often, the whole point of a ritual might
be to purify people of objects.
Background to Ritualization
So far, anthropological theories cannot
account for why rituals necessarily include
features of rigid sequences or repeated
actions or any of the other obvious features.
◦ Some have argued that rituals are symbolic, but
there does not seem to be any special information
or meaning being passed to participants of rituals.
The normal features of rituals (repetition,
redundancy, pointless actions) would only obscure
any message trying to be transferred.
The following are the few theoretical
frameworks that have tried to address why
rituals contain such specific ritualized
Phylogeny of Ritual
There are clearly similarities between human
rituals and animal routines and displays.
◦ However, the preoccupation with unseen dangers and
concerns over cleansing are definitely human-specific.
These similarities mainly include simplification of
communication. These “displays and rituals make
transmission of simpler messages more
◦ In the animal kingdom, ritualized fights save the fitness
costs of actual fights.
◦ Still, while animal displays exist for these reasons,
human collective rituals cannot be explained so easily.
Further, we cannot determine an evolutionary
account for ritualized behavior. It remains to be
seen what adaptive value rigidity of group action
Adaptationist Models: Group
Cohesion and Signaling
This model suggests that rituals create group
cohesion through coordination between
◦ however, many social activities require coordination
between agents without ritualized behavior.
but ritualized behavior demonstrates commitment,
agreement of actions, and collaboration.
So it is not just cohesion, but public commitment to
cohesion, which paves the way for other displays of
commitment in the group.
More evidence of this is found in the overall expense
of many rituals—in either resources or general fitness
(for example, boys might need to undergo dangerous
and painful activities to become a man).
these costs point to a type of commitment that cannot
Ritualized Proper, Individual and Collective:
Diverse Domains of Ritualization
While these theories are interesting, they still do not
explain why ritualized behaviors are attention-demanding
for this reason, the authors turn to ritualized behaviors
that are not cultural or collective are done for different
◦ Children’s rituals : 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-compulsive disorder : people with OCD generally
perform ritualized actions over and over in precise ways, usually
as an intuitive response to obsessive thoughts about potential
dangers (germs, for example).
◦ Life-stage-relevant intrusive 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).
The Fiske Hypothesis
Freud found 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.
◦ Fiske found 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.
◦ To Fiske, the human need for ritualized action, usually
pointed towards social contexts, is hyperactive in pathology.
He believes that collective rituals “channel personal fears or
doubts into culturally transmitted conceptual schemes, thereby
making them shared and probably less” anxiety-provoking.
Probably because 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?
A NEUROCOGNITIVE MODEL OF INDIVIDUAL
RITUALIZED BEHAVIOR: Potential danger and
Relevant cognitive Systems
Humans and 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
◦ Individual intrusive thoughts and rituals are often
targeted towards these evolutionary threats.
◦ Neurocogntive models would consider OCD a form of
hyperactivation of this system.
◦ In the author’s model, normal activation of this system
would explain compelling precautionary behaviors in
many situations (including life-cycle-stage and
Complex Ritual Rules and
The complex 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.
◦ This sustained action “swamps” the participant’s
working memory, which prevents him for attending
to stimuli and situations outside the ritualized
◦ It has also been stated that such cognitively-
demanding activities push out unwanted thoughts
for a little while.
A Model of Collective Rituals
The premise 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.
They do so because they activate specific
individual neurocognitive systems in the
brain more than other behaviors.
Cognitive Capture of the Hazard-
The hazard-precaution system is activated only
by information about potential danger (and only
a few specific dangers) because of certain
indirect cues in the environment.
◦ While only 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.
◦ The contention of the authors is that many aspects of
collective rituals contain cues for potential danger,
thereby activating the hazard-precaution system.
Information Available and Likely Inferences
It would 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.
◦ People convey information triggers nonrandom inferences
about the behavior they’re performing. The information
manifested consists of the following elements:
Available information 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.
Available information 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).
Recurrent Features of Collective Rituals
and Cognitive Capture
What features of collective rituals cause cognitive
capture and activate the hazard-precaution system?
◦ Occasion for 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.
◦ Danger of 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.
◦ Detailed Prescriptions : As stated earlier, motifs such as
washing and cleaning, checking and rechecking, and creating
order are related to security.
The authors 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
Consequences: Action Representation
in Collective Rituals
Activation of hazard-precaution systems may
explain other facets of collective rituals:
◦ Forcing goal 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.
◦ Swamping of 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
COLLECTIVE RITUALS IN CULTURAL TRANSMISSION,
Transmission: Relevance and Selection
A question remains: why are collective rituals
so organized? What processes caused them to
be so effective in creating personal
◦ to clarify, the authors are not implying that these
ritualized behaviors triggers full activation of the
The authors 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
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.
Implications: Ritualization as the
Opposite of Routinization
In this model, ritualized behavior is
considered the opposite of routinized
◦ But in most human ceremonies, there is a
combination of ritualized actions (high control,
attention focus) and routinized actions (automaticity,
low attention focus).
The difference is in the attentional focus and
division of the action flow
Note that the same ritual might involve ritualized
action for a novice but routinized action for a
COLLECTIVE RITUALS IN HUMAN EVOLUTION:
Adaptation or Recruitment of Other Adaptations?
Is there a specific human capacity and
adaptation for ritualized behavior?
◦ It’s found 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
◦ However, to be evolved through natural selection,
rituals would need to promote reproductive
While these rituals may reduce unmanageable anxiety
by coordinating actions with others, thereby making
them more meaningful, there is no evidence that this
promotes reproductive success
Generally, anxiety is adaptive and functional.
Atavistic Procedures or Evolved Precautions?
The ritual behaviors are probably not
evolved behaviors from an ancestral
◦ More likely, 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.
◦ The ritualistic process accumulates and
distorts originally appropriate actions.
Capacity or Disposition?
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
Rituals can be considered highly successful
cultural “gadgets” whose recurrence in cultural
evolution is function of:
◦ 1. how easily they are comprehended by witnesses and
◦ 2. how deeply they trigger activation of motivation
systems and cognitive processes that are present in
humans for other evolutionary reasons.
Many human 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.
Relation to Andes Survivors
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 then succesfully deal with it.