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Jesper Sørensen


Questions of agency are central for understanding ritual behavior in general and representations of ritual efficacy in particular. Religious traditions often stipulate who are entitled to perform particular rituals. Further, representations of unobservable superhuman agents are often explicitly described as the 'real' ritual agents. Recent investigations into the processes underlying action representations and social cognition can help explain how these representations arise. It is argued that paying close attention to details in the cognitive processing of ordinary actions can shed light on how ritual actions activate part of these systems while simultaneously leaving other aspects unaccounted for. This has particular effects that make culturally transmitted representations of superhuman agents highly relevant.

Jesper Sørensen and Olav Hammer

Kristoffer L. Nielbo and Jesper Sørensen


By means of the computational approach the present study investigates the difference between observation of functional behaviour (i.e., actions involving necessary integration of subparts) and non-functional behaviour (i.e., actions lacking necessary integration of subparts) in terms of prediction error. Non-functionality in this proximal sense is a feature of many socio-cultural practices, such as those found in religious rituals private and social, as well as pathological practices, such as ritualized behaviour found among people suffering from Obsessive Compulsory Disorder (OCD). A recent behavioural study has shown that human subjects segment non-functional behaviour in a more fine-grained way than functional behaviour. This increase in segmentation rate implies that non-functionality elicits a stronger error signal. To further explore the implications, two computer simulations using simple recurrent networks were made and the results are presented in this article. The simulations show that non-functional action sequences do indeed increase prediction error, but that context representations, such as abstract goal information, can modulate the error signal considerably. It is also shown that the networks are sensitive to boundaries between sequences in both functional and non-functional actions.

Pierre Liénard, Chelsea Feeny and Jesper Sørensen


Justin Barrett and E. Thomas Lawson (2001) were among the first to operationalize experimentally a traditional topic of anthropology: 'ritual'. Using a similar experimental protocol, the authors further investigate the cognitive underpinning of representations of ritual actions. Participants were asked to judge the likelihood of success of variants of a series of prototypical ritual actions. In line with Barrett and Lawson's findings, it was expected that specific intuitions would guide participants' judgements about the well-formedness of ritual actions; that representation of superhuman agency would be pivotal in those judgements; and that the role of the ritual agent would be conceived as fundamental. The present study was particularly focused on the effect of changing Agent or Instruments in descriptions of a set of prototypical ritual actions. Following a second line of inquiry, contexts in which the prototypical actions were set were systematically manipulated. It was expected that this would affect patterns of answers. No such contextual effect was found, but the study revealed significant differences in how participants appraised different changes affecting Agent and Instrument. The authors finally speculate that specific systems dedicated to the processing of information about Agent and Instrument might explain these findings.