Extreme Rituals as Social Technologies

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
Ronald Fischer Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research, Victoria University Wellington Wellington New Zealand

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Dimitris Xygalatas Interactive Minds Centre, Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, Aarhus Denmark Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut Storrs, ct USA

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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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