The Wisdom of Ritual

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

In our modern scientific world, the human need for ritual is typically denied and scoffed at, Al Fin notes, but a ritualistic inclination is built into our species:

Imagine you are a five-year-old being led into a small office. A woman with a warm smile shows you an assortment of strange objects. Some of them are shiny. You feel like playing with them. That’s OK, that’s allowed. Soon the friendly lady takes the objects away and says she wants to show you a video. On the screen is another woman. She has an identical set of objects lined up neatly in a row and she’s doing odd things with them — she lifts one and taps it on another, then puts it back and takes something else, twirling it in a peculiar fashion before replacing it. This goes on for some time. Then the strange objects are pushed back towards you and the lady says: ‘It’s your turn.’ What would you do?

If you were a five-year-old, you would imitate at least some of the actions you observed in the video. No instruction would be necessary. And yet, the behaviour doesn’t appear to achieve anything. The psychologist Cristine Legare and I have been working together for several years trying to understand why young test subjects bother to copy it. Our starting point is that they treat it as a convention of some kind. That is to say, they adopt what we call ‘the ritual stance’, imitating without questioning the purpose of the actions.

In our experiment, however, the behaviour of the woman in the video is ambiguous. Children can’t be sure it if is oriented to a goal or not. A surprisingly simple shift helps them to decide: we just alter the last move in the sequence. If the woman puts the last object into a box, it looks like the whole procedure was just a ‘funny’ way of putting an object away. We call this the ‘instrumental condition’. On the other hand, if the objects all end up back where they were originally placed, the whole action sequence appears not to have any tangible purpose. We call this the ‘ritual condition’. When the start and end states are identical, children are more confident that the demonstration on the video should be interpreted as a kind of ritual. And guess what? They copy it much more faithfully, and are less inclined to try out variations on their own initiative.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    It may go very deep. Even cats have rituals they perform to get food, open doors, get attention, etc.

  2. Aretae says:


    Your extension pushes the definition of ritual beyond the reasonable. And maybe so does Al Fin’s.

    Repetition is how creatures learn. And it’s cheaper to build habits than to consider options. Hence, you would expect all creatures to run habitual behaviors.

    Ritual needs to be something beyond that. Is the something observation and copying? I don’t think so. We see monkeys do that sometimes. And some birds.

    What is the defining characteristic of ritual, as opposed to simple rote-learning?

  3. Gina says:

    I would say that it is imbuing the objects and movements with meaning, and that can come later.

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