Your daily rituals affect your life — just not in the way you expect : NPR


We see rituals in almost every part of our lives, from celebrations to ways to relieve stress.

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Igor Alexander/Getty Images


We see rituals in almost every part of our lives, from celebrations to ways to relieve stress.

Igor Alexander/Getty Images

From wearing a lucky pair of socks, to following family traditions, rituals are embedded in our daily lives.

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and scientist at The University of Connecticut, and has recently written Ritual: How Seemingly Meaningless Acts Make Life.

In his book, he explores our relationships with rituals, large and small, and the social, physical, and economic effects they have on our lives.

“Rituals are central to almost all of our social institutions. Think of a judge waving a gavel or a new president taking the oath of office,” he wrote. “They are held by militaries, governments and corporations, at initiation ceremonies, parades, and expensive displays of commitment. They are used by athletes who always wear the same socks to important games, and by gamblers who kissing dice or clinging to lucky charms when the stakes are high.”

Xygalatas says that the need for ritual is primeval and may have played an important role in human civilization. He joined All Things Considered to explain some of his findings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Real-world effects of rituals

As we study the ritual from both a humanistic, but a scientific point of view, we can see that even if people perform those rituals without an explicit purpose, or even if they do have a purpose, there is no particular causal connection between the actions they take and that purpose. So for example, when I perform a rain ritual, there is no connection between my movements and water falling from the sky.

But still, that doesn’t mean to say, just because the ritual doesn’t have a direct impact on the world, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact on the world. In fact, rituals play a very important role in human societies. They help individuals through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect with each other, they help people find meaning in their lives.

On measuring the personal impact of rituals

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski conducted his research in an area that is now part of Papua New Guinea, the Trobriand islands. He noticed that local fishermen perform many rituals before going out to fish in the open sea, which is dangerous, uncertain. But before going out to fish in the lagoon, they do not perform the rituals.

So he argued that perhaps ritual is a coping mechanism that helps these people relieve anxiety. And it’s a proposition that anthropologists have repeated for nearly 100 years. But no one had the means to actually test it. So a few years ago, my colleagues and I first drove people into the lab, and we stressed them out. And we used motion sensors to measure their behavior. We found that the more stressed they were, the more ritualized their behavior became. It started to become patterned and repetitive.

Now to see if it really helped them reduce anxiety, we went to real-life temples — for example, Hindu temples on the island of Mauritius — and we measured people’s physiological responses. And there, we see that as they go into the temple, and they do these familiar prayers that they do, it helps them reduce their galvanic skin response. It helps them increase heart rate variability, helps them reduce cortisol levels, and even on a human level, helps them reduce their feelings of anxiety. So these rituals seem to work.

At the cost of more intense rituals, such as fire walking

Even rituals that seem painful, stressful, or downright dangerous, they seem to have tangible, and indeed measurable, uses and functions for the people who perform them.

For example, in the context of a fire-walking ritual in Spain, we found that during this ritual, people’s heartbeats synchronized. This isn’t just an effect of people moving at the same time — their heart rates are synchronized regardless of what they’re doing, at the same time; some of them walk through the fire, others watch.


A Hindu devotee walks over hot coals while taking part in the Yankin Moekaung fire walk festival in Yangon, Myanmar.

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A Hindu devotee walks over hot coals while taking part in the Yankin Moekaung fire walk festival in Yangon, Myanmar.

Sai Aung Main/AFP via Getty Images

In fact, this effect is stronger for those who are closer to each other socially. Which shows that these rituals play a role in bringing the emotional reactions of the members of that community into alignment. And by aligning our experiences or aligning our feelings, those rituals can actually lead to social alignment.

How COVID has affected our approach to rituals

The COVID pandemic is one of the best lines of evidence for the importance of ritual. This created a unique puzzle. People turn to ritual — to find social connection and to relieve their anxiety. So this is the time when we need these two things the most. But at the same time, one of the most common cultural technologies that we have for approaching those things is no longer available to us, because people can no longer get out of their houses, get together and have collective same ceremony that is very important to them.

So of course, what happened is that people spontaneously started adapting traditional ceremonies — for example, we saw drive-thru weddings — or they started creating new ceremonies. That’s like what we see when people in big cities go out on their balconies and start banging pots and pans, as a show of solidarity.

This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo

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