Post No.: 0349
Credibility enhancing displays (CREDs) are behaviours that signal one’s belief in and commitment to something, such as to a religion. Examples that enhance one’s credibility include putting your own money where your mouth is or demonstrating your convictions via actions rather than mere words. There’s no bigger CRED than dying for what you believe in – hence martyrs are created out of those who do.
We can be manipulated by prestigious people/authority figures, so to protect ourselves from this we look for actions that support their verbal statements or beliefs – things they’d only do if they genuinely believed in what they’re expressing. If a religious leader is ‘practicing what they preach’, as it were, then it gives them more credibility and trustworthiness, hence rituals can serve as CREDs that make it more likely that others will take up the same belief too. Such rituals include fasting, abstinence or other sacrifices for one’s beliefs. Sacrificing an animal might not only serve to appease a god but demonstrate that one is willing to give up food even when food is scarce if these animals are not later eaten.
So religious ritual CREDs make the transmission of cultural beliefs more likely, and is a way for communities to also affirm and show their commitment to a belief or sacred value. People are more willing to cooperate with members of their own groups, and partaking in rituals signals to everyone which groups one belongs to, thus religious rituals bind and bond groups too. This follows straight on from Post No.: 0304, which looked at how participating in certain rituals can signal one’s dedication to a certain group. Most people naturally enjoy being bonded with a group, as opposed to being alone, hence separate autonomy is often voluntarily given up.
Being part of a strong social group or network infers many benefits to the individual members, particularly to the poor – but to prevent free-riding or faking to get the benefits without putting in the efforts, members must demonstrate their commitment to the group via rituals. It’s like a subscription fee for club membership but one not just about money because not every potential member can afford it and a group would be smaller in number and thus weaker in physical force against competing outgroups if it were just about money and those who can afford it. Therefore rituals can promote cooperation and deter free-riding too.
And the costlier the rituals are in time, pain and/or other resources, the more one signals one’s credibility, commitment and trustworthiness to the group and group’s faith, hence they evolved to become, what seems to outsiders, needlessly costly – and indeed this could be a fair criticism because many people who partake in such costly religious rituals are very poor. But cultures, traditions and habits can be hard to shift or change, or the collective social and individual psychological benefits really do outweigh these costs.
However, some costly rituals and signals of commitment are done without one’s consent (e.g. male circumcision as a baby). And conspicuous consumption is a form of costly signalling but one not done to necessarily seek approval and inclusion into, or show commitment to, a group because it can also be done as ‘one-upmanship’ to try to signal that one is ‘better than the rest’ for sexual selection purposes i.e. here it’s more about intra-group competition than intra-group harmony. This shows that people’s evolved cognitive predispositions to signal and pay attention to social signals can express in different ways depending on the cultural context.
Credibility and ultimately trust are critical because individuals and groups often face cooperation dilemmas or deadlocks that can only be solved by emotions like trust, and rituals can raise general and mutually beneficial levels of trust. Armed forces across the world use a lot of ritual-like behaviours because in battle is a clear situation when individuals might be tempted to defect or rout for their own individualistic, rational self-interests (an attitude of ‘other members of my group should die for the greater good of our group, to protect the survival of our group, but I won’t personally go that far’). An entire army made up of people like that will not be successful hence armies create loyalty and solidarity via rituals (whether informal or formal e.g. hazing or marching; although hazings can sometimes go too far i.e. be about bullying rather than for team bonding purposes). An army of soldiers who are willing to die for each other is far more effective than an army of soldiers who will only fight because of the salary or threat of punishment if they retreat or desert the battlefield. And again, the costlier or harder to fake the signalling, the more psychologically convincing for those trying to assess another person’s dedication towards the group.
So costly rituals are uniquely good at fostering group cohesion, and can help a group as a whole survive over time. A strong team celebrates together as well as mourns together. Fictive kinship terms or names like calling a non-blood-relative priest or fellow follower a ‘father’, ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ further play on the family closeness of religious members. Churches can be places where people can overtly observe and assess each other’s level of emotional and practical commitment to one another.
People can also be punished or treated badly if they’re not demonstrating that they’re a part of the group. So once more, religion, or any context where there are strong group loyalties, can also create outgroup prejudice or hatred that’s proportionately related to the strength of one’s loyalty to one’s ingroup (a sense of ‘us versus them’); and for each ingroup one commits to there can be multiple outgroups one prejudices against either directly or indirectly. Only prejudicially favouring one group is logically in effect prejudicially disfavouring all other groups (just like to favour men is to discriminate against women, or vice-versa). Ingroup cohesion, facilitated via rituals or anthems that are performed together, for instance, can create outgroup hostility, and sometimes this is intentional, such as when a collective ritual is performed in a particular context – an arousing ritual with pro-social primes can increase pro-sociality (e.g. a togetherness parade), but an arousing ritual with anti-social primes can increase anti-sociality (e.g. a nationalistic military ritual performed during a time of international tensions), because we’ll associate the high arousal/emotions with the prime of loving one’s group and/or hating outsiders.
This means that group-forming and group-enhancing practices can be used for either good or bad depending on the contextual cues employed, regardless of whether they’re religious ones or ones dressed up by any other ideological cloak. The same tools that can be used to bind ingroup members together can create divisions between outgroups. And if an ‘us versus them’ attitude helps one’s tribe to survive and reproduce (or at least doesn’t hinder these goals – so a tribe doesn’t need to use the absolute best strategy possible but just one that isn’t sufficiently bad enough to hinder these goals when weighed against the strategies of competing tribes) then this attitude will or can be passed on, whether genetically as an instinctive ingroup bias and/or culturally as a taught prejudice.
Therefore the alternative perspective is that religious rituals can be coercive i.e. ‘if you don’t do this thing that the rest of us are doing then you’re excluded or something bad will happen to you’. But this happens secularly too (e.g. with cliques or fraternities/sororities, or implicitly when we judge, stereotype and group people according to what they wear, for instance).
Credibility undermining displays (CRUDs) can, in contrast to credibility enhancing displays, be corrosive in religious or other communities. Examples that undermine one’s credibility include faking, hypocrisy or contradictions against a person’s own stated beliefs.
If people are associated with a religion, and those people do something hypocritical or simply immoral by one’s own measure, then that religion will be associated with that hypocrisy or immorality too (depending on how much else one has experienced, knows about and associates with followers of that religion or that religion itself i.e. the less one knows, the more one generalises). Seeing hypocrisy or other credibility undermining displays in certain ideologies or religious followers (and them not seemingly getting punished by their god(s) for it!) is a major reason why people can end up being atheist – this is far more than access to clear arguments for or against a religious belief, or an individual’s personality or socialisation. It lowers the level of credence in the ideology these followers are offering. CRUDs such as church scandals and sexual abuse cases result in lower attendance, charitable giving and commitment to the religions concerned.
However, exposures to CREDs can increase people’s commitments to even counter-intuitive beliefs or claims. But whilst a peacock’s tail or gazelle’s stotting cannot be faked (otherwise the animal will literally get eaten by a predator and die!) – with religious rituals (and many other human behaviours in general, especially in the modern world where there are relatively far fewer genuine day-to-day life-or-death threats), a behaviour and its purported motives may not align, and so signal faking is still very possible. Thus it could be argued that, although religious rituals are costly, some members are actually consciously and calculatedly playing the long game because they know that group membership will afford them net benefits in the end?
This behaviour is likely to be corrosive to credibility and trust, hence religious commitments probably still need to be emotional in nature and not just consciously self-interested and coldly calculated. Culturally successful rituals demand an immediate use of resources but produce some kind of net benefits in the long run otherwise they won’t sustainably persist. These benefits mainly come from being closely connected to a group and this social bond is primarily emotional (e.g. loyalty and trust), and these emotions are implicit and tacitly held – if they become rationally analysed and calculated then they’re subverted. (It’s like if someone says, “I only want to be a part of this fan club because I want the t-shirt in the end” – genuine fans aren’t going to think highly of this person and may even want to push him/her out.) People in a tight-knit group are highly attuned to these emotions and would arguably detect someone (e.g. via their face and body language) who is merely going through the motions and doesn’t truly share the same emotions, hence they’d be identified as a fuzzy hypocrite or free-rider and thus shunned.
These costly rituals may or may not actually infer overall net practical benefits for the individuals of the group in the end, but as long as members believe in the psychological benefits and the group survives (whether it barely does or thrives) then the group, along with its rituals, traditions and culture, will survive. This is true regarding natural selection in general – it’s not about ‘maximising’ per se but being ‘good enough’.