Extreme Rituals as Social Technologies

in Journal of Cognition and Culture
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We often think of pain as intrinsically bad, and the avoidance of pain is a fundamental evolutionary drive of all species. How can we then explain widespread cultural practices like certain rituals that involve the voluntary infliction of physical pain? In this paper, we argue that inflicting and experiencing pain in a ritual setting may serve important psychological and social functions. By providing psychological relief and leading to stronger identification with the group, such practices may result in a positive feedback loop, which serves both to increase the social cohesion of the community and the continuation of the ritual practices themselves. We argue that although the selective advantage of participation lies at the individual level, the benefits of those practices de facto extend to the group level, thereby allowing extreme rituals to function as effective social technologies.

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Figures
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    Painful rituals: a Hindu devotee in tears as he is being pierced for the Kavadi.
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    Mean donations among the different groups. *** p < 0.001. Error bars represent sem.
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    Perceived pain divided into quartiles. The linear polynomial contrast on these quartiles is highly significant: F(1, 46) = 8.13, p < 0.01, indicating that higher levels of pain are associated with bigger donations. Error bars represent sem.
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    Painful rituals: a spirit medium is being pierced during the Vegetarian festival.
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    Conceptual framework of extreme rituals as social technology: linking individual agency to collectives via public display of high ordeal actions.
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