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Rituals are important to human life — even when they seem meaningless


Growing up in Greece, Dimitris Xygalatas remembers adults at school putting him through regular practices that didn't serve an obvious purpose.

DIMITRIS XYGALATAS: We'd have morning prayer. Twice a year, we would have these big parades. We would have compulsory church attendance.

SHAPIRO: As a child, Xygalatas had a hard time understanding why he was doing these things. They felt like mysterious habits without an immediate, tangible, productive result.

XYGALATAS: I really didn't see the point of all those rituals, perhaps because they were imposed on me. Ironically, I ended up studying ritual precisely because I wanted to know what it is that drives human beings all around the world to engage in what seems like pointless activities.

SHAPIRO: Activities from blowing on dice at a casino to marching in an elaborate graduation ceremony. Dimitris Xygalatas is now an anthropologist and cognitive scientist, and he unpacks some of these mysteries in his new book "Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living." He begins the book with what he calls the ritual paradox. People often swear by the importance of rituals without being able to articulate why they're so important.

XYGALATAS: I think this is one of the biggest puzzles about human behavior. We tend to think about ourselves as very rational beings, and yet so much of what we consider meaningful sits in actions that are compulsively repeated and yet have no obvious outcome. And I think this is a paradox that is worth explaining.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And you actually come up with a lot of answers in this book for, why do it? Give us a couple of them.

XYGALATAS: So as we study ritual from both a humanistic but also scientific perspective, we come to see that even if people engage in those rituals without any explicit purpose, there is no particular causal connection between the actions they undertake and that purpose. So for example, when I perform a rain ritual, there's no connection between my movements and water falling from the sky.

SHAPIRO: Rain dances don't make rain.

XYGALATAS: Correct. But even so, just because ritual does not have any direct causal effect in the world, it does not mean that it has no effect in the world at all. In fact, rituals play very important functions in human societies. They help individuals through their anxieties, connect to one another. They help people find meaning in their lives.

SHAPIRO: The book is full of examples, and there's one that I love that I've been telling people about, where scientists showed a bunch of participants video footage of the same basketball shot. But half the time the person taking the shot did some ritualistic movement first. And half the time they didn't. And when participants in the study were asked whether the shot would end up going through the hoop or not - because the video footage stopped before it reached the hoop - people were far more likely to say that the guy taking the shot who did the ritualistic movement first made the shot even though they were the exact same movement.

XYGALATAS: Correct. In that study, actually, we showed those videos both to people who had never seen basketball games before and to basketball fans. Their intuitions were the ritualized shots were going to be more successful.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think that is?

XYGALATAS: This is related to the way we perceive action. Our brain makes causal inferences. So when we engage in a particular action, we expect that there will be an outcome. And ritual has all of those particular structural elements that trigger that sense of causality even if the causality is not really there.

SHAPIRO: Some rituals are more extreme than others. A birthday party is very innocuous. In contrast, you have spent your life researching fire walking, where people literally walk barefoot across hot coals, which is far more extreme. What is the value of a ritual that pushes people to the limits as much as something like fire walking does?

XYGALATAS: One of the things that I've learned - one of the most fascinating things that I've learned through my research is that even rituals that seem to be painful, stressful or outright dangerous - they seem to have tangible and in fact measurable utility 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 heart rates synchronized. This was not just an effect of people moving at the same time. Their heart rates would synchronize no matter what they were doing at the same time. Some of them were walking on fire. Others were watching. And that shows that these rituals play a role in bringing the emotional reactions of the members of that community in alignment. And by aligning our appearances, aligning our motions, aligning our emotions, those rituals can actually lead to social alignment.

SHAPIRO: The pandemic put a halt to many rituals, from graduation ceremonies to funerals. What did you see when that happened?

XYGALATAS: The COVID pandemic was one of the best lines of evidence for the importance of ritual. I remember the day that my university was shut. I met with my students for what was going to be the last class of the year. And I told them what the plan was. We're going to switch to online teaching. Somebody asked me, are we going to have a graduation ceremony at the end of the semester? I said, we're not sure, but I doubt this will happen. And I could see that all of them were extremely disappointed.

The COVID pandemic created this unique conundrum. People turn to ritual to find social connection and to soothe their anxiety. So this was the time that we needed these two things the most. But at the same time, people could no longer get out of their house, get together and perform those collective ceremonies that are so meaningful to them. So, of course, what happened was that people spontaneously started either adapting traditional ceremonies - for example, we saw drive-through weddings - or they started creating new ceremonies, much like we saw when people in big cities came out on their balconies and started banging pots and pans together in a show of solidarity.

SHAPIRO: It really shows that ritual is not a luxury. People will go to great lengths to preserve or create them.

XYGALATAS: It is definitely not a luxury. And in fact, ritual extends way beyond the confines of the typical context in which we think of it. A context like religion - we find it everywhere. All of our social institutions are permeated by ritual. Think of graduation ceremonies, presidential inaugurations. Think of what happens when you walk into a courtroom. Think what happens at holiday traditions. Think what happens at the bar when you raise your glasses to make a toast. Ritual is everywhere.

SHAPIRO: What's your favorite ritual today as an adult in the world in which we live right now?

XYGALATAS: One of the rituals that I really enjoy is that whenever I go back to my home country, which is Greece - I always try to go to my home team's stadium and watch a football game. And during that football game, there is a lot of choreographed, ritualized chanting and movement going on between the fans. And this is one of the strangest things for me because I tend to think of myself as a very rational individual. I don't have a lot of supernatural commitments. But whenever I go into this stadium, I cannot help feeling this goosebumps at the back of my neck. That is the feeling of collective effervescence. I care deeply about my team. I've cried tears of joy and tears of sadness about my team. This is not something I can explain. Those strong loyalties are forged exclusively through the types of collective rituals that take place on the terraces.

SHAPIRO: So if the anthropologist and author Dimitris Xygalatas could speak with the child who said, ugh (ph), what are all these dumb Greek rituals for, what would he say to him?

XYGALATAS: I would say to myself that ritual is a very ancient social technology and it fulfils the exact same roles today as it did for our ancestors thousands of years ago. So I would say embrace it.

SHAPIRO: Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist whose new book is "Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living." Thank you very much.

XYGALATAS: It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIPSEY HUSSLE SONG, "OCEAN VIEWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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