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Ritual suffering can increase prosociality

An international team of researchers led by Dimitris Xygalatas from Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University brought experimental methods into a field setting to investigate the effects of one of the world’s most extreme rituals. Although social scientists have long argued that such rituals may function to promote prosocial attitudes and behaviours, this claim has never before been tested on a real-life ritual.

2013.07.29 | Anja Kjærgaard

Kavadi ritual, where participants pierce their skin with needles and skewers and walk for hours carrying heavy bamboo structures called kavadi before climbing a mountain to offer these structures to the temple of Murugan.

Dimitris Xygalatas, Assistant Professor, Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, Center for Interacting Minds (IMC).

The investigation consisted of two rituals performed by the local Hindu-Mauritian community that varied in levels of intensity: A low-ordeal communal prayer, and the high-ordeal Kavadi ritual, where participants pierce their skin with needles and skewers and walk for hours carrying heavy bamboo structures called kavadi before climbing a mountain to offer these structures to the temple of Murugan.

The two rituals took place in the same temple and had similar numbers of participants. Furthermore, all participants took part in both rituals, in order to avoid self-selection problems. After each ritual, the experimenters administered questionnaires and paid subjects for their participation, and the latter were then asked to make a voluntary donation to the temple from their earnings. 

The reported levels of pain correlated with the amount donated

The questionnaires revealed that people in the high ordeal identified more with the inclusive Mauritian identity than with the more parochial Hindu one. In addition, reported levels of pain in the ritual correlated with the degree of inclusive identity. The same trend was observed for their views of other ethnic-religious groups, Creoles (Christians) and Muslims: the higher the intensity of the ordeal, the more Mauritian they saw everyone to be.

“The results of the charity task were also significant: Once more, the reported levels of pain correlated with the amount donated, and the high-ordeal group donated much more than the low-ordeal one. Importantly, these effects extended beyond active performers, even to the members of the community who were merely attending the ritual, revealing that extreme rituals may function to increase prosociality for the entire community,” explains researcher Dimitris Xygalatas from Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University.

The insights may be used in all sorts of interventions

These findings offer novel insights into the effects of communal ordeals in motivating collective behaviour and shaping group dynamics. We may find similarities between these rituals and sporting events, military initiations, public riots, etc. In such situations, shared arousal plays an important role in shaping collective behaviour and identity-making:

“So, the insights that we gain from such studies may be used in all sorts of interventions, from designing team-building techniques for corporations or sports teams, to predicting loyalty levels of extremist groups within a social network,” says Dimitris Xygalatas.


Facts

The study, which is reported in the journal Psychological Science, took place in Mauritius, where Aarhus University has an ongoing research programme through the establishment of the Mauritian Laboratory for Experimental Anthropology - www.malexa.net

The project was funded through the Velux Foundation core-group Technologies of the Mind. 


Contact

Dimitris Xygalatas, Assistant Professor
Aarhus University
Department of Culture and Society

Center for Interacting Minds (IMC)

Mail: etndx@hum.au.dk
Direct phone: + 45 8716 2142

Danish phone: (+45) 607 30 800
Czech phone: (+420) 776 755 792
Mauritian phone: (+230) 7815220
www.xygalatas.com

Research, Religionsvidenskab