Whence Collective Rituals_ A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized

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					Whence Collective Rituals?
     A Cultural Selection
      Model of Ritualized

                PIERRE LI ´ENARD
                   PASCAL BOYER
The Question:
   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
       be faked.
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
    and compelling.
   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?
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
  (evolutionary threats).
  ◦ 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
    children’s rituals).
Complex Ritual Rules and
Working Memory
 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-
Precaution System
   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
  evidence himself.
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
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
    hazard-precaution system.
    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
     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.
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
      seasoned expert.
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
    compulsive responses
  ◦ 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.

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