Why Do We Have More Faith in More Complex Rituals?

Although there is a written record of rituals used for problem-solving purposes dating from ancient Egypt (The Papyrus Ebers, 1931; The Papyrus Ebers, 1937), the use of rituals to treat problems as diverse in etiology as asthma and unemployment is widespread in contemporary cultural contexts, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, and South Africa. Despite the seeming variability in the content, practices, and artifacts used in rituals around the world and over historical time, we propose that the way in which ritual efficacy is evaluated is predictable and constrained.

For example, compare the following rituals used as remedies in ancient Egypt and in present-day Brazil. First, consider this ritual taken from the Papyrus Ebers (1550 B.C.) that was used to treat blindness: “Crush, powder, and make into one the two eyes of a pig (remove the water therefrom), true collyrium (i.e., mineral eye salve), red-lead (i.e., red oxide), and wild honey [in a clay bowl]. Inject [mixture] into the ear of the patient. When thou hast seen properly to this mixing repeat this formula: ‘I have brought this thing and put it in its place. The crocodile [god Sobek] is weak and powerless.’ Repeat twice. Thereby he will at once recover.”

Now, consider a ritual used to find a partner in Brazil: “Buy a new sharp knife and stick it four times into a banana tree on June 12th at midnight (i.e., Valentine’s day in Brazil, Saint Anthony’s day is on the 13th). Catch the liquid that will drip from the plant’s wound on a crisp, white paper that has been folded in two. The dripping liquid captured on the paper at night will form the first letter of the name of your future partner.”

On the surface, there are many differences between these rituals. They involve different substances (e.g., red-lead vs. sap from a banana tree), different practices (i.e., mixing vs. paper folding), incorporate different artifacts (i.e., clay bowl vs. a knife), and treat different problems (i.e., blindness vs. attracting a partner). Yet, there are also many similarities. They involve information such as procedural repetition (i.e., repeat twice vs. twice a day for two weeks), a large number of procedural steps (i.e., seven vs. six), time specificity (i.e., early rising vs. June 12 at midnight), high levels of procedural detail (i.e., mixing wild honey vs. buying a new sharp knife and sticking it four times into a banana tree), and the presence of supernatural agents (i.e., Sobek, an ancient Egyptian deity vs. Saint Anthony, a Catholic marriage saint).

In research recently published in the journal Cognition, our objective was to examine the “hidden logic” of rituals experimentally, integrating and applying cognitive anthropological and cognitive psychological approaches to the study of ritual cognition. Rather than evaluate the efficacy of rituals by examining outcomes or experience, we sought to examine the kinds of information that influence perceptions of the efficacy of ritual action.

We hypothesize that information reflecting intuitive biases in causal reasoning (i.e., repetition, number of procedural steps, and the specificity of procedural detail) is used to evaluate the efficacy of ritual action. Although biases in causal reasoning are used to evaluate the efficacy of all action, their influence on action-efficacy judgments may be especially salient or influential when information about causal mechanisms is unavailable. Whereas some of the intuitive causal principles hypothesized to influence perceptions of ritual efficacy examined in the present studies are likely to be related to previously documented biases in causal reasoning (i.e., repetition), others have not been well studied (i.e., number of procedural steps and specificity of procedural detail).

We propose that repetition of similar actions (e.g., pressing a button repeatedly to call an elevator) is perceived to be causally efficacious. A long-standing philosophical tradition supports the claim that beliefs about causal connections arise from impressions (projections of the mind) of repeated instances of similar relations. Converging psychological research has demonstrated that repetition may also influence reasoning about a variety of behaviors by making information more psychologically available, familiar, and attractive. The number of procedural steps and procedural specificity of the action sequence may also influence perceptions of causal efficacy. A larger number of procedural steps (e.g., seven steps) may increase the perception of causal efficacy over a smaller number of procedural steps (e.g., three steps) by giving the impression that multiple actions may have the capacity to produce a particular effect. The specificity of the action sequence (i.e., inclusion of specific, detailed information) might also influence perceptions of action efficacy.

Given that human beings are expert intention-readers, seeing someone engaging in a detailed course of actions (e.g., catching the liquid that will drip from the plant’s wound on a crisp, white paper that has been folded in two) may give the impression that particular details of the action sequence (i.e., time specificity, item specificity) has the potential to produce the desired, intended outcome, even if the mechanism is unknown or unavailable.

Cristine Legare is a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Category: Q&A


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