MIND
August 20, 2012

What Rituals Offer

Rituals tend to provide a level of comfort, a sense of control. They also tell us a bit about human logic and reasoning.

What is it that makes rituals comforting? Top athletes may use them before competition. Religious movements are often built around them. Even in the 21st century, people believe that supernatural rituals actually work, even if they require significant time and effort. A recent study suggests that for a ritual to be effective, certain qualities must be present.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at how people of various cultures evaluate the effectiveness of ritual beliefs. Their findings shed light on the processes of human reasoning and how people are able to make sense of the unknown.

As the psychologists expected, most persons in the U.S. study group didn't believe in simpatias. Like the Brazilian group, however, the Americans were more likely to believe in rituals involving many repetitions and steps.

Simpatias involve several steps and the repetition of these steps. They are used for such things as quitting smoking, curing asthma, and banishing bad luck.

Cristine Legare, an assistant professor of psychology, and graduate student André Souza described several different simpatias to 162 people in Brazil. Each ritual was modified by differences in the number of steps, number of repetitions, number of items used, and the use of religious icons.

The researchers asked the study participants to rate the effectiveness of each simpatia. They found that the three elements of a simpatia that had the biggest influence on its perceived effectiveness were the number of steps in the ritual, the repetition of parts of the ritual, and a specified time period during which the steps should be repeated.

To see how rituals like simpatias are perceived across cultures, Legare and Souza conducted the same study in the U.S. with 68 people from various religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. As the psychologists expected, most persons in the U.S. study group didn't believe in simpatias.

Like the Brazilian group, however, the Americans were more likely to believe in rituals involving many repetitions and steps. For example, compared to other rituals, they gave higher marks to this ritual for curing sadness, because it involves several steps and repetition:

In a metal container, put the leaves of a white rose. After that, set fire to the leaves. Get the remaining ash from the leaves and put it in a small plastic bag. Take the small plastic bag and leave it at a crossroad. Repeat the procedure for seven days in a row.

"One of the most remarkable characteristics of human cognition is the capacity to use supernatural reasoning to explain the world around us," Legare said in a press release. The findings help explain how people find logic in the supernatural, even without concrete evidence that rituals such as simpatias actually work.

The study appears in the journal Cognition.

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