Meaning Lab
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#106: Rituals matter more than you think (feat. Dimitris Xygalatas)
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#106: Rituals matter more than you think (feat. Dimitris Xygalatas)
A recent book by cognitive anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas shows how rituals are a crucial part of a meaningful life—even for us moderns.
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Denis Dutton was a philosopher of art and media. He was born in the US but moved to New Zealand when he was 40, where he became interested in Oceanic Art. This interest led him to spend time in the village of Yentchenmangua on Papua New Guinea. Over the course of his ethnographic work, he began to get to know the locals.

One day, Dutton noticed that his friends in the village seemed down. He asked why. They explained that the tourist numbers had dropped, and they were trying to figure out ways to get more people to visit. Dutton was asked if he had any ideas.

He sort of shrugged, then off the cuff suggested fire-walking. The villagers had no idea what that was. Dutton explained. They asked him if he would teach them.

Dutton had never done a fire-walk of his own before, but he understood the principle from his friends in New Zealand. Coal is a poor conductor of heat. So, in theory, one can scuttle across a bed of hot coals without getting burned if one moves with sufficient haste. The never day he gave it a shot. And it worked. The villagers soon adopted it as their own local ritual, even taking measures to jealously guard it from neighboring tribes.

Dutton later asked them, “So what if some anthropologist visits your village in the future, inquiring about the origin of the fire-walking ritual? What are you going to say?” One of them responded: “We’ll say that we’ve always done it this way. Our fathers did it, and their fathers before them, and ultimately our ancestors learned how to do it from a white god.”

This story is from Ritual, the recent book by Dimitris Xygalatas. And I think it illustrates something crucial about the way we’re used to thinking about rituals—that they’re a kind of cultural excess: there for arbitrary reasons, not serving any specific purpose. Aren’t all rituals like the one the villagers got from Dutton? At some point, someone just made them up, right? Rituals can seem antiquated, and us more-informed moderns are better off leaving them in the rearview mirror.

But Dimitris’s work shows this isn’t the case. Rituals are useful for at least three separate reasons. In this conversation, we cover how research—including Dimitris’s own—shows that rituals reduce anxiety, are crucial for social cohesion, and are an important source of meaning.

Unlike most behavior, rituals aren’t a means to an end. They aren’t about achieving a goal or desired outcome. We do them for their own sake—because that’s how things are done, how our forebears did them. And it is precisely this lack of immediate utility that makes them integral to meaning and identity. They separate our way of doing things from everyone else’s. And, as Dimitris argues, we’re probably worse off in the modern world for our willingness to shave off the trappings of life’s rituals in our relentless pursuit of increased efficiency.

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[This interview has been edited and condensed. Full conversation available via the podcast.]

So to start off with: What is a ritual? Why do they matter?

If you ask 100 anthropologists, you might get 100 different definitions of ritual. As far as I’m concerned, a key aspect of ritual is that it’s either gold-demoted [that is, we don’t know why someone does it after it’s already happened] or it is causally-opaque. And what that means is that when people perform their rituals, even the most meaningful rituals, when you ask them why, very often they don’t have a ready explanation for you. They’ll say, “oh, well, we just do them.”*

But even when they do offer some reason for doing those rituals—let’s say we perform this ritual for healing purposes—there is no causal connection between the actions undertaken and the purported outcome. So if I try to heal somebody by chanting, we don’t see any physical causality between the movements of my mouth and what’s going on in that person’s body. So that is a key characteristic of ritual.

An additional characteristic is that rituals create special spaces and special events. They sort of create the domain of the sacred. And this is what differentiates ritual, for example, from habits. So habits might be the flip side of a ritual. I take my coffee every morning, I brush my teeth twice a day, and some say this is my morning ritual when I brush my teeth. But I would say no, because this has a specific purpose to clean your teeth, and the actions you undertake are connected to that outcome. But if you were to just wave your toothbrush in the air with the belief that it will cleanse your teeth, or no belief at all, now that would be a ritual.

At first glance, rituals by definition seem utterly pointless. But the fact that they are found in every human society we’ve ever known, and the fact that so many people around the world find them deeply meaningful, I would dare say all people find them deeply meaningful. Even if they don’t realize it, if they think of religious rituals. But then when we get into other things like your wedding or your birthday celebration or a funeral you attend, all of us find meaning in ritual. So this for me was the big puzzle.

When you say the word “ritual,” sometimes it feels, I don’t know, maybe “antiquated” is not quite the right term—but something a primitive society would engage in. But us modern urbanites, you know, we sort of moved beyond that. We do things because they have real effects. How do you think about what it means to perform a ritual in daily life in the modern world? And perhaps what are some of the examples of rituals that you study that your average person would connect with?

I think it would be tempting but misguided to think that we no longer have as many rituals as people used to have because we live in an era of technological progress and secularization.

The misconception stems from the fact that because ritual has been such a successful mental and social tool for religion—to the extent that we come to think of those two things as synonymous, but they’re not. Ritual predates religion and it extends far beyond religion. And I would argue that our lives today are just as ritualized as they’ve ever been. We have to be careful with our definitions here—but based on my definition, ritual is everywhere.

In the modern world, we engage in handshakes, and we raise our glasses to attend birthday parties, and we have college graduations, and in many parts of the world we have military parades, and in our militaries we have marching and the raising of the flag and so on and so forth. There are countless examples if we look at how people behave in sports stadiums or in political rallies or at rock concerts or in their everyday life our lives are in ritual, from birth to death.

So the way I see it, there’s a human need for ritual. Rituals provide comfort for us, they help us soothe our anxieties, they help us connect with other people, and this need is a constant. What changes are the forms. And in fact, what you see is that the more organized religion retreats in the West perhaps today, the more people seek it in other domains, and they come up with other kinds of rituals—perhaps of the kind that you find in Burning Man or other festivals or in the area of sports or other organized institutions, even the workspace.

“Those things are important in a ritual context precisely because those actions are arbitrary and have no inherent meaning. It allows them to take whatever meaning we wish.”

Let’s get into the mechanism here. What is it that makes ritual meaningful? What is going on there that takes this ostensibly useless activity and gives it this really fundamental sense of how we create meaning in our lives?

This is a complicated answer, because the reason rituals are so successful is that they’re able to trigger a whole host of psychological mechanisms.

One of the ways in which rituals do things for us is that they help us soothe anxiety. And this is a very old idea that anthropologists have proposed over a century ago. For a very long time, this was simply either taken for granted or at least it went untested. But now we have evidence for it. We know, for example, from studies—including my own studies—that when we put people in a room and we stress them out, their behaviors become more ritualistic; they become more repetitive. And then when we look at what happens when they perform these behaviors, even in a decontextualized setting, when we have them engage in repetitive movements, we see that anxiety levels drop. We can see this both in their minds (their anxiety levels as being lower, they feel less stressed) and in their bodies. Their electrodermal activity decreases, their heart rate variability increases, and so on and so forth, their cortisol levels drop.

We also see it in real life rituals. We’ve done studies in Mauritius where we measured people’s stress levels as they performed rituals in a religious temple, a Hindu temple, compared to a control group, and we see that after performing those rituals, they have lower anxiety levels, both psychological and biological.

How do the rituals do that? What is the mechanism?

We have proposed that this is related to the way our brain works and the way our brain constantly seeks patterns in the world. Our brain makes predictions all of the time. Before I finish a sentence, you have a certain prediction in your mind about what my next sentence is going to be. When we drive, we make predictions about where every other car in our own car will be in a few seconds from now and so on and so forth. It’s a very efficient cognitive architecture that I think will inevitably evolve given evolutionary potential. That’s where advanced intelligence will move towards. And if we ever have true artificial intelligence, it would have to work in the same way. A byproduct of this architecture is that when we don’t have the capacity, when our environment does not allow us to make successful predictions, we get very stressed. The thing we experience as stress, perhaps more than anything else, is uncertainty. And this is why you see that those domains of life that have high stakes and high uncertainty are full of virtualization. If you go to a casino, you will see that gamblers are notorious for their superstitions rituals. If you go to a sports stadium you see the same. If you go to a war zone again you see the same. And ritual provides structure, it is predictability. When I do a ritual, because I’ve always done it the same way. I know exactly what will happen—when and how it will happen.

This gives you a sense of control of the situation. And of course this control may be illusory, but it doesn’t matter. We know that it works. We know that it helps you reduce your anxiety. So this is one piece of the puzzle. Ritualization comes naturally to us and it feels good.

Another related mechanisms is what we call “effort justification.” This idea refers to a whole host of different related theories, but they all make the same observation that our brain makes inferences about the value of things. And one of the cues it uses to make those inferences is how costly they are.

I spent some time living with a group of people called the Anastenaria in northern Greece, and they performed fire-walking rituals. What I realized there was that the meaning for their participation in those rituals was produced through participation itself. What I mean by this is when I asked the youngsters “Why do you do this ritual?” most of them will just look at me and they say they would say things like “I felt this urge to do it” or “That’s what people do around here.” When you invest so much effort into an activity, it automatically feels more meaningful. This is a fair assumption to make. Some of the best things in life come at a cost, right? You get what you pay for—in building things and so on and so forth. So our brain automatically infers value from effort. And this is why some of the things that seemingly don’t have any inherent value, things like running marathons or climbing Mount Everest or performing very painful rituals or investing a lot of time week after week after week, thousands of hours—let’s say memorizing the Torah or attending church—those things too create meaning for us.

The first time anybody goes to a temple for the vast majority of individuals as children, it’s because their parents take them. It’s not because they had some kind of an epiphany. But do this long enough and it begins to become very meaningful.

One last thing I will stress here is the ability of ritual to forge social connections. So that’s very important to us. It creates a sense of collective identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of bonding. How does it do that? Again, through multiple mechanisms.

One of those is related to what we call “phenotypic matching.” Other animals do this as well, but we also do it a lot. We make assumptions about human connections and kinship based on a variety of cues. One of those cues is similarity. We know that phenotype and genotype are closely track one another, for the most part. So people who look more like me, the more they look like me the more likely they are to be related to me. And rituals are very good at doing this. They align people’s appearances. Perhaps we wear the same clothes, the same makeup. They align people’s movements. We all march together. We chant together. They align people’s emotional responses. We have evidence from various rituals that when people perform collective rituals, even their heart rates begin to synchronize. So they feel like one. And by doing all of those things, people feel closer to each other. It is no accident that in so many ritual contexts, participants call each other their brethren. And we talk about things like fraternities and sororities and all those things invariably have in common are ritualized behaviors. So they have a rituals recruit a host of different mechanisms to provide meaningful experiences for people.

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I want to talk more about effort justification. Another way of putting that is that rituals derive their meaningfulness from friction. It’s the fact that they don’t accomplish anything of themselves. They’re not instrumental. They’re not actually the thing that is getting you whatever the further reward or end that you want is.

What I like about that thesis is that it’s at odds, in many ways, with the way we typically think about meaning. I think a lot of us intuitively believe that there is such thing as “intrinsic meaning.” This was actually something I was talking about with Paul Bloom in one of my recent episodes. When we talk about things that we find meaningful, a lot of the time it’s this small list of having kids, rewarding careers—these things that have very clear goal orientation where it’s clear why you’re doing them. And instead, you’re kind of saying, “Hey, look, here’s something that by its very nature is inane in a way.” And yet this is this crucial thing that we are taking to construct our meaningful engagement with the world. Does that sound like a fair characterization of your position?

Yeah, and in fact, when you think about it, some of the things that both are the most meaningful to us and are also the very things that make us human, that really distinguish us from other animals, are precisely those kinds of things that have no inherent, no intrinsic meaning. There are things like art and music and dancing and ritual and group membership. There are things like sports fandom. It’s all of those things. Those things are important in a ritual context precisely because those actions are arbitrary and have no inherent meaning. It allows them to take whatever meaning we wish.

Whatever the ideology of the group is, these rituals are a very good way of reinforcing that ideology. Whatever the group itself is, those arbitrary actions allow us to distinguish this group from what other people do. Because there’s an infinite array of things we could be doing in the context of a ritual. If I want to clean my hands as a utilitarian action, there are only a few ways of doing this. I can use water and soap or an antiseptic and so on and so forth. But if I conduct a purification ritual, then I can do any number of things. I can use blue paint, or I can use ashes, or I can use blood, or I can use dirt or water, and so on and so forth, or just symbolic gestures. And that means that we can choose an action that will be specific and unique to our own group. And that makes it special for us. It creates those associations with the most salient part of our identity, our group membership.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of efficiency. A lot of times in modern life, what we’re striving for is increased efficiency. And when I hear theories like yours describing, “okay, let’s look at this specific instance and try and understand how we make meaning from it,” it seems like a core component of what we’re doing when we find something meaningful is that we’re identifying something inefficient about it. And it’s almost through a kind of cognitive dissonance of saying, “well, I’m not doing this because it’s the most direct way to achieve a goal. Otherwise, I would do this other thing.”

It seems to me like that impulse to streamline and to make life of an increasingly efficient nature actually takes away from a lot of the fabric of meaning that you’re describing in things like ritual, social connection, the ability of ritual to create, as you said earlier on, space, all those sort of things. Does that sound right to you?

Well, one way to respond to this would be to flip it on its head and to say that in fact just because ritual don’t have direct utility does not mean that they’re less efficient. In fact sometimes they might be seen as mental shortcuts. So imagine a situation—let’s take two examples, the individual level and the collective level.

At the individual level, imagine that you’re very stressed. You’re facing a major threat, perhaps you’re concerned about illness, there are things you can do to reduce your stress. You can start working on the psychological processes, perhaps you can talk to someone, you can go out for a walk, there’s any number of things you can try to do. But if a ritual works, that might be the easiest way of dealing with this. If what is familiar already works, then it doesn’t really matter if it’s an arbitrary action as long as it works for you.

In the collective context, now think of a group that is facing very high stakes. So we know from historical evidence that groups that face higher stakes—for example, the tribes that are under constant threat of warfare—they have more painful initiation rituals. Now the problem that this group needs to solve is the problem of cooperation and trust. When you’re going out to war or hunting or any kind of high-stake activity, you want to have a very cohesive team made up of very trustworthy individuals who are really committed to this, to their group membership. Now the best way to find out, perhaps the best utilitarian way, is to go to war and who is a good, who is brave and who will defect and run away. But there’s also another way of doing this. Some high intensity initiation rituals precisely simulate those conditions in a safe space. So what they do is that they get people to pay a high price in advance and that functions as a test of their loyalty, as a test of their commitment.. If I’m willing to go through hell week and suffer for an entire week, then I’m truly committed. If I’m willing to endure a brutal beating in order to join a gang or a fraternity, then I’m truly committed to this.

And since you mentioned Paul Bloom, I’ll get to an example that he gave in his previous book. He says that he described this election for a fraternity president, and there were three candidates. So the first candidate steps up in front of the fraternity and says, if I’m elected, I’ll do X, Y, and Z. And the second candidate steps up and says, if I’m elected, I’ll do A, B, and C. And the third one steps up, takes a piece of paper with the fraternity’s insignia, and staples it to his chest.

Now this is an act that has no direct function and is completely arbitrary, but by doing this—there was no better signal of loyalty and commitment and willingness and desire to be the leader of that group. And he was elected. So that’s the kind of thing that rituals do. The more direct way might also be in the long run more effortful. So you could put in years of work or you could go out to war and then we can test your bravery. But there are ways of taking shortcuts and in this sense, perhaps rituals are not as wasteful as they seem.

So what should we do with this information? Is the implication here that we would all be slightly better off in particular on the come up with new rituals? Is that the takeaway for you on the pragmatic front from having studied all this?

Yes, I think the main takeaway from this is that the things that might appear to be irrational, if they seem to work for so many people, then they’re worth investigating, exploring, and of course adopting and incorporating into our lives. It’s no accident that every human society has had rituals. Now for many of us, our lives are radically different than those of our ancestors. We’re more mobile. We have fluid social networks, so we’re not bound by tradition as much as our ancestors were. And this can sometimes create a gap in meaning. And we see levels of depression and suicide, there are spiking around the world—anxiety levels. So these kinds of practices, if they’ve worked for so long, I think it’s worth considering the possibility that they might work for us as well. In fact, as a researcher, I know that they do.

I do see myself as a very rational person. I don’t have any supernatural commitments. But I tend to see ritual as, as I said at the beginning—I see it as both predating religion and extending far beyond religion. It is not about something supernatural. If you’re willing to concede that things like art and music are deeply meaningful, too, then I don’t see why you wouldn’t concede that the rituals too are also deeply meaningful and are also not just useful but they’re a core part of leading a good and a meaningful life.

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Meaning Lab

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Welcome to the Meaning Lab podcast. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making — from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.