Post No.: 0283
The vast majority of people in the world currently affiliate themselves with a religion, whether they’re actively practising or not. Religion can be broken down into the beliefs (e.g. gods, afterlives, spirits and miracles), the practices (e.g. prayers, rituals, pilgrimages and social congregations) and experiences (e.g. a sense of spirituality).
A religious ritual can be generally defined as a compulsive or compulsory, socially-stipulated, scheduled behaviour that’s inherited from convention or traditional authority, and is usually collectively performed (particularly the important rituals). They signal one’s affiliation with a group, are usually characterised by physical or speech acts, repetition and rigidity (they must be performed precisely and often with very specific objects), and have a lack of material efficacy or have a causal opacity (a behaviour that serves no obvious instrumental or physical purpose, unlike something like chopping wood or carrying water). Yet they are not purposeless – they are often elaborately justified.
But like ‘religion’ itself, it can be hard to definitively define a ‘ritual’ because it is a radial category – for example, are all habits rituals? (Maybe if they’re attached to beliefs?) Are cults religions? Is something a tradition, custom, culture or religion? Christmas, for instance, is a religious celebration, yet most atheists celebrate it too, hence categorisations and boundaries of religious beliefs and practices are frequently blurred.
Costly ritual behaviours (in time, effort and/or other resources) arguably don’t seem to have any immediate pragmatic function but they can serve subtle practical functions in terms of their effects on individual psychology and group dynamics. Therefore the actual ultimate function of a ritual (its psychological, superstitious and/or social function e.g. to reduce anxiety) may not be the same as the function purported by its practitioners (the intended or believed effects in the real world e.g. to actually cure someone’s anxiety-causing cancer). There’s far more to religion than superstitious beliefs, but superstitious rituals in one form or another are common to religions.
For individuals – rituals can reduce anxiety before a risky, uncertain and/or stressful event; just like the superstitious rituals many sportspeople perform before a competition. Indeed, in domains where people believe there is the least certainty in outcomes, superstitious rituals are more prevalent, such as gambling and kissing a lucky charm – and it’s not necessarily about belief, faith or meaning because most gamblers don’t truly believe their rituals will make a difference, but it just cognitively reduces fuzzy anxieties and gives an illusorily greater sense of control over the uncontrollable. We like to think we can affect even luck (but that wouldn’t be the definition of luck!) It can then just become a habit over time.
People may turn to witchcraft or other rituals when they feel they have no hope of control via any other way. Superstitious rituals, if one believes in them, can psychologically improve confidence and reduce intrusive doubts, and this in turn can actually improve performance though (e.g. during an important penalty kick), so rituals can be very powerful psychological techniques to improve one’s experiences and performances in situations where one does have some meaningful control.
Rituals also become more prevalent when people are confronted with very dangerous existential threats that they really have no (individual) control over (e.g. war, disasters, a lack of rain for the crops) and/or when a potential reward is large. Ritualised behaviours are most effective at reducing the anxiety felt from dangerous, existentially threatening or saliently stressful situations (from war to public speaking) rather than expected or mundane daily concerns. When desirable events are random, and even sometimes if they’re predictable and regular as clockwork, we will tend to spontaneously develop superstitious, ritualistic behaviours. The world is causally deterministic, at least above the atomic level, but our naïve, intuitive causal reasoning can make us believe that our rituals can directly cause outcomes that we don’t really have direct mechanistic control over but feel we do (e.g. touching wood to ‘make’ one’s team win).
So we invent ritual-like behaviours to increase our sense of control in situations where there’s a lack of (total) control. Some other animals exhibit what appear to be ritualistic behaviours in response to unpredictability too. Unpredictable and uncontrollable situations or environments tend to evoke ritualised behaviours. Such beliefs or rituals are appealing because the idea that we have so little control over our lives (regardless of whether this is true or not) is very scary and aversive. Rituals give us psychological comfort, even if they don’t actually work to do the things they propose to do. Rituals can give people a sense of agency by providing tangible actions to perform, even if they’re causally opaque or it’s unclear how they’ll exactly or physically cause the outcomes desired. These behaviours can help establish a psychological although illusory sense of control, and may then evolve to form more culturally formal ritual behaviours.
Therefore it’s a by-product effect of our intuitive causal reasoning system – a lot of what we do in our day-to-day lives exhibits genuine causal actions to their associated effects (e.g. planting a seed during the right season, watering the land not too much and not too little, then a healthy crop growing months later), but this understanding is over-generalised or over-applied (like all instincts tend to be) so that we can even believe in actions that have no effective mechanistic bearing on an outcome. We use non-instrumental mechanisms to try to solve what are otherwise instrumental problems because we believe this will work. It’s the fallacious logic of ‘if I cross my fingers and then my team scores a goal, then my team must’ve scored a goal because I crossed my fingers’. And then these ritualistic behaviours may propagate via culture, and may become incorporated within a nascent and evolving religion, especially if the proposed causal reasoning involves gods, spirits or the like, which they often do because they’re non-physical concepts that escape physical explanations that could otherwise be easily mechanistically or cause-and-effect checked and falsified.
Psychopathologies such as OCD are related, but they aren’t the complete picture because rituals, in some form or another, are far more universal. Rituals appear to be related to OCD because obsessions are intrusive thoughts, and compulsions (ritualistic behaviours) are carried out because one believes that ‘if I don’t do it then something bad might/will happen in the world’. And whether for OCD or religious/superstitious purposes, such behaviours, when completed, can give individuals a sense of psychological relief against the anxiety of what one believes might/will happen if one didn’t perform them. Our ‘hazard precaution system’ (a set of intuitions that detects and responds to perceived threats) anticipates future hazards, and if a hazard is (subconsciously or consciously believed to be) detected, then there is a compulsion to demand that something must be done about it – so much that it could keep us awake at night if we don’t do ‘something’.
Another possible reason is that, unlike when we normally analyse our or other people’s actions and it’s sufficient to abstract out the steps involved (e.g. getting some water from the tap) – with rituals, we are directly attending to the details because the details are believed to be important (e.g. take 8 steps towards the sink, use one’s right hand to turn the tap half a turn, fill a glass for 3 seconds), and this detailed action-parsing overloads our working memories, which means that there’s no more mental capacity left during this moment to attend to, or therefore feel any anxiety brought up by, the hazard precaution system, hence affording us temporary relief. Rituals that involve paying close and present attention to one’s actions are thus essentially forms of mindfulness meditation. Placebo rituals in alternative medicine serve the same anxiety-dampening and hope-giving effect (although they won’t likely actually cure the thing that’s causing someone anxiety).
However, this ‘action parsing’ hypothesis can come apart because once we’re skilled at performing a ritual, it’ll no longer be mentally overloading or distracting thus its anxiety-reducing effects will disappear, at least via the mechanism of mental overloading i.e. it could still perhaps reduce anxieties but via another mechanism.
OCD could therefore be interpreted as an over-expression of a very basic human tendency to try to dampen anxieties via ritualistic behaviours in the face of uncertainty, threats and/or a lack of personal control. Compulsions or rituals can give oneself an illusion of control, following the lines of washing one’s hands before a meal and not getting ill after eating that meal, or planting a seed and then a crop appearing months later, except even with actions that bear no mechanistic control towards their desired outcome. Indeed, OCD behaviours tend to decrease when a sufferer feels less stressed, anxious or uncertain in their life – and in lab experiments, increasing anxiety causes an increase in ritualised (repetitive, rigid and redundant) behaviours. (Repetitive and rigid rituals apparently work better to reduce anxiety hence why many rituals tend to be repetitive and rigid.) These tendencies are taken to a pathological level with OCD (and perhaps also with autism when it comes to ‘stimming’ behaviours and traumatised orphans when they rock back and forth?) but are taken to a cultural level through religious rituals.
Just like when people tend to copy a successful person they wish to emulate wholesale because they don’t know what fluffy bits they can omit and still be just as successful as them (see Post No.: 0268) – people probably carry out rituals to the letter because they don’t know what bits they can omit and still make the ritual ‘work’. If we don’t know exactly how something works (such as a causally opaque or complex situation), our intuitive response is to repeat a procedure or follow the instructions rigidly. It’s kind of like when you are a beginner cook, your best strategy is to follow a given recipe precisely – only once you are more experienced and knowledgeable about the causes and effects of each instruction and are achieving desirable results can you treat the recipe as more of a loose guide and still achieve a desired result (e.g. vanilla extract will still work okay if one cannot find vanilla pods, albeit not for me if it contains alcohol – woof!)
But with religious/superstitious rituals, they have no direct causal link between their ritual actions and their intended effects so one can never learn what is strictly necessary and what isn’t, hence one must continue to follow the procedures precisely. It also gives believers a ‘get-out excuse’ – for if a ritual failed to work to get the desired result then people can claim that it must’ve been because they failed to carry out the ritual precisely enough or that they didn’t believe or commit to it enough!
Although non-instrumental religious/superstitious rituals can help relieve anxiety and give hope – non-religious/non-superstitious and somewhat instrumental rituals can help too, logically even better if they will truly affect the outcome desired (e.g. a procedure, or ritual, of systematically breaking a problem down into smaller and simpler steps and planning and writing a list of what must be done). Direct rumination on a problem is bad though if there’s genuinely nothing you can do about a situation because you don’t have reasonable control over it. And this is where distraction or mindfulness techniques, and maybe non-instrumental rituals, are more beneficial.