Post No.: 0304
Post No.: 0283 discussed rituals and their personal effects on individuals. In this post, we’ll explore their social effects on groups…
For groups – rituals can bring and bind people together in identity, as well as generate ‘collective effervescence’, which is when a group of people simultaneously communicate the same thought and participate in the same (high-energy or intense) action. Just like an audience in a music festival, people on the dance floor or fans chanting in a sports stadium – the group are ‘as one’, in unison, including empathically.
Rituals also generate a visceral sense of community, demonstrate the societal hierarchy and allow a leader to display his/her authority (e.g. by virtue of who conducts a ritual or who it’s in honour of), and, in religion, can be used to supplicate the heavens.
Some rituals, even if performed alone, can make individuals feel psychologically connected with others around the world who are also performing the same ritual at the same time (e.g. timed prayers). They allow people to live in a society structured by norms, even if they won’t actually cause the sky to rain or bring other requested fortunes from the gods. Again, religious rituals are not really for what they claim to be theologically about – they psychologically serve social functions, strengthen the group and its norms or traditions, while the sacred or ‘holy seal of approval’ packaging (that the sacred forces approve of these rituals) lends some perceived weight to these social norms. And perhaps the causal opacity, along with the complexity of a ritual, helps to protect that ritual’s air of authenticity by making it unfalsifiable i.e. we cannot prove that it actually works to do what it’s supposed to do (e.g. bring a bountiful harvest later in the year) but – we perceive that – we cannot prove that it doesn’t work either?
The rituals one partakes in signal to others what group one is in and not in, and signal one’s level of commitment to that group too, thus signalling that one is a reliable member of that group according to this level of integration and commitment to that group. This behaviour really applies to all kinds of group affiliations, not just religious groups. Initiations and rites of passage ceremonies can work like they do for cults or other clubs or teams. And the more extreme the ritual (e.g. flagellation, self-piercing), the greater the display of commitment by a member to the rest of the group on a social level, and on an individual level it can create a ‘sunk costs’ commitment effect too, that together binds and strengthens the group as a whole.
Some rituals are more than just symbolic – they’re effectively mandatory. If people don’t partake in them then they’re not accepted into the particular group i.e. there are reputational costs for not doing them. Hazing or feeling pressured to drink alcohol just because everybody else in the group is are examples that show us that rituals aren’t always good. Some rituals are voluntary though and are done due to a sense of tradition (e.g. secularly clinking glasses together to say ‘cheers’) and a sense of identity.
A painful, high-ordeal ritual (e.g. fire-walking) can also apparently increase pro-social behaviours, possibly because of the empathy of the pain. This effect can also be felt by mere observers of a painful ritual too; again possibly because of the empathy of the pain. (People who fire-walk can self-report remembering feeling calm internally during the event yet empirically their heart rates, as measured by heart rate monitors, were sky high!) Voluntary pain experiences can also release a surge of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers, resulting in a sense of euphoria (like after intense exercise). The right amount of acute/non-chronic stress (just like intense physical exercise again) is beneficial, and can create positive super-compensation effects (improvements to one’s subsequent stress response in this case). Pilgrimages and fasting usually involve a hardship or sacrifice, and a shared pain, hurt or struggle can also improve fluffy empathy between group members and therefore help bind them together more strongly. Some people find that singing, especially in a group, can help relieve pain too. And a placebo painkiller that’s administered with an elaborate ritual can improve its effect.
Rituals can serve as direct, symbolic, interpersonal communication (e.g. rites of passages, marriages and funerals) – they tell the rest of the group what’s going on (e.g. a change in status). The costly signalling of rituals could also be used like a peacock’s tail or a gazelle’s stotting – most major rituals seem unnecessarily expensive for survival (in time and physical resources to plan and carry out), and so surviving with such risky hindrances/behaviours signals one’s sexual selection prowess, and also signals to any outgroups that it’s not worth fighting them because they’re so apparently healthy and resource-rich that they can afford to perform such expensive rituals. It kind of can’t be faked because if the group can’t afford this expensive ritual, the group would truly starve and die for getting its priorities wrong; albeit there are still opportunity costs i.e. how even more strong could they be if they simply used this time and these resources more productively? However, in this context, if they’re successful in deterring a fight or invasion, these rituals will overall save everyone’s time, energy and lives. (Secularly, military parades serve a similar purpose of ‘strutting one’s stuff’ as a signal to other nations to not test them.)
Moral emotions such as trust, loyalty, commitment and love are powerful motivators for individuals to act for the good of a group/partnership instead of for (only or directly) one’s own self-interests – collective and costly rituals provide a way to cultivate these emotions, so such rituals are often used to solve cooperative dilemmas. Military training essentially involves an endless series of difficult rituals (exercises, drills) that aim to create a group that’ll remain together in the face of very challenging conditions – yard exercises and training missions may of course increase physical fitness levels, mental preparation and test tactics, for instance, but these tough (costly) rituals/exercises are done with the group together rather than separately as individuals to also cultivate trust, loyalty and commitment to the group and to discourage defection even in the face of real combat and potential death.
So rituals again provide a context for demonstrating and assessing everyone’s commitment to the group – we’ll view a person who intentionally tries to skip painful military manoeuvres, when everyone else is doing them, as a free-rider and therefore less a part of the group and less trustworthy. We’ll question their commitment to the team. We wouldn’t be so bothered if they were trying to skip something less painful or costly. Extreme rituals, such as scarification and bloodletting, serve a function of tying people together so that they can compete against an enemy force – and these extreme rituals correlate with times of war and the intensity of the warfare.
Group synchrony, or doing things in coordinated unison (e.g. bowing, dancing, singing, marching, even arbitrary things like tapping fingers in time), leads people to be more trusting of and pro-social towards the people they’ve performed those synchronous things with. These people could’ve been randomly put together or arbitrarily put into their particular groups at the beginning too. Dressing the same (uniforms, team kits) helps too. A group of people singing and/or dancing in sync with each other creates a sense of them psychologically merging into one, where the boundary between one member and another becomes blurred. Even a moderate asynchrony in time will lessen these effects slightly, and a slight difference in ritual procedure between two groups will make members of those groups less willing to switch groups – they’ll in fact start to see each other as two separate groups. This might partly explain how all these different religious denominations evolved, and may explain why many religious rituals must be strictly followed to the letter otherwise it’ll risk group fractionation? Even slight differences in fundamental beliefs and rituals between two groups can lead to sectarianism, and possible sectarian violence, despite these groups being far more similar than different to each other from the perspective of an outside observer!
It’s not necessary for group members to feel euphoric positive emotions for performing a synchronous ritual together (as in collective effervescence) – it’s more about making people feel more similar, ‘on the same wavelength’ and thus bonded to each other. We instinctively feel more compassion towards people we perceive a sense of similarity and identity with (e.g. domestic versus foreign terrorist victims, even if the latter were far poorer, more unfortunate and more numerous); and doing something together in unison unconsciously increases that sense of similarity and rapport. This ‘identity-fusion effect’ results in participants feeling and becoming part of the group that they can start to lose a sense of themselves as individuals, for better or worse. (Nowadays, an army marching in synchrony still serves to strengthen group cohesion and collective identity – even though in modern warfare no army uses the old-style battle formations of the past, such as infantry squares or schiltrons, on the actual battlefield anymore.) However, the effects of group synchrony may only be temporary, hence why they need to be regularly repeated.
Woof! As you can see, rituals aren’t just religious in nature. If you can think of some other secular rituals that serve some of the above social functions then please share with us your knowledge by replying to the tweet linked in the Twitter comment button below.