01 June 2012


Neuroscientist and science writer Andrea Kuszewski recently posted a link to an article in Psychology Today, concerning the hidden causal beliefs about rituals.  In part, the author states that "One of the biggest difficulties that we have to deal with is that most of the things that happen to us are utterly out of our control.  Cultures have developed many strategies for dealing with this fact.  One of the most fascinating of these strategies is the creation of rituals.

"[In one study], three aspects of [ritual formulas] seemed to have the biggest influence on people's beliefs about whether they worked.  First, formulas with more steps were thought to be more effective than those with fewer steps.  Formulas that required steps to be repeated were more effective than those that required no repetition.  Finally, formulas that had to be performed at a certain time (such as during the full moon) were thought to be more effective than those that could be performed at any time."

Certainly there is no shortage of examples of rituals we've woven into our lives ~ elaborate religious rites, audience behavior at a classical music concert, good luck gestures performed by a baseball batter stepping up to the plate, the chanting of gamblers about to throw dice, or wearing a 'lucky' article of clothing on a first date.  The question is, do rituals literally have the ability to influence an outcome, or do we simply lend credence when the outcome is positive, and find a rationalization when it is negative?  More likely the latter, in my view and according to the principle of parsimony, which states that the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one.

Andrea probably agrees.  In her comment preceding the article link, she said, "In my experience, ritualistic behaviors are most likely when the person is feeling out of control or anxious about something they can't immediately change.  The dissonance forces them to seek out ways to relieve the tension, and ritualistic behaviors emerge."

In short, while rituals may have comfort value, most simply demonstrate that we are placing our trust in an irrational belief which is not supported by evidence.  Just the opposite is true ~ if rituals worked, every Las Vegas gambler would be a winner, no marriages would end in divorce, prayers would always have the desired outcome, and that batter?  A home run every time.

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