“If you randomly assign people into two groups and you give them different insignia or you have them go through different practices, they come to like each other more. It’s very easy to create this basic sense of belonging and identity. Ritual is particularly good at eliciting that kind of sense, also because it triggers our intuitions about what we call phenotypic matching. This is the idea that we have psychological mechanisms that allow us to recognize those that are members of our groups, especially teams. If you think about who is your team – they’re the people who are most likely to look like you, they’re the people who are most likely to behave like you, they’re also the people that you go through emotional things with. You go through laughter and crying and traumatic experiences with – those are the people we call family. A lot of rituals, collective rituals, replicate all of those things – they make people wear the same insignia so our appearances are aligned, they make people move in synchrony so our movements are alike, and sometimes, they also involve people going through highly emotional things, in pleasure and joy like in a wedding, dancing, tearing, and chanting together. But they can also involve crying and sadness, like taking part in the same funeral or even perhaps pain, like going through a painful initiation ceremony.”  

Episode Description: We begin by describing the results of an experiment where children given rituals to perform in association with a task formed tighter and more exclusive bonds with those in their group as compared with children given the same task without the rituals. The role of rituals, through rigidity, repetition, and redundancy, empowers greater group affiliation, especially if pain is built into the ritual. We discuss “collective effervescence” – synchronous arousal common to those participating in sporting events, religious ceremonies, and political rallies. Dimitris mentions the role of deities in these rituals as well as those rituals that are inherently involuntary, ie, genital mutilation. He shares with us his experience walking on coals and how it impacted his esteem and group attachment. We close with his describing how he utilizes rituals in his current family life. 

Our Guest: Dimitris Xygalatas, Ph.D. is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, where he directs the Experimental Anthropology Lab. His research interests focus on some of the most puzzling yet deeply meaningful aspects of human behavior. He has been studying ritual for over two decades, conducting several years of fieldwork and combining ethnographic and experimental methods. His work has been published in over 100 scientific articles and books. His latest book is Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. 

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