What Makes People Think a Ritual Is Effective?

Rituals are an odd thing. They incite deep devotion despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome. As University of Texas psychologist Christine Legare and her colleague Andre Souza write in a new paper, rituals are “irretrivably causally opaqe,” and that begs an interesting question: How do people evaluate the efficacy of a ritual when there is no causal explanation? In other words, if I have two rituals — let’s say, pulling my ear twice before shooting a free throw and listening to Enya whenever I have a cold — how would a person evaluate which one is more likely to bring about the desired result?

Legare and Souza attempted to find an answer by asking native Brazilians to rate the efficacy of different simpatias — recipes that are used in Brazilian culture to solve everyday problems (e.g. to alleviate depression, “on the last day of the month, throw a piece of the person’s clothes into a streaming river unbeknownst to the person. As the river flows away, the problem goes away.”)

After manipulating whether various criteria were present or absent in the simpatias, Legare and Souza found that there were three factors that significantly increased a ritual’s perceived effectiveness. More repetition (e.g. do it seven times rather than three times), more procedural steps, and the specificity of the ritual’s timing. These results held when the same simpatias were tested on students at an American University. According to Legare and Souza, these tendencies have an evolutionary origin:

We propose that one possible explanation for the effects of frequency (i.e., repetition of the ritual act(s), a greater number of procedural steps) and greater specificity (i.e., time specificity) is that information of this kind activates intuitive causal principles that evolved to understand causal efficacy about real-world events.

It’s not hard to see how “intuitive causal principles” that emphasize frequency and time-specificity would be useful to human survival. If a person’s indigestion goes away after eating seven blue fruits and one red fruit, it’s helpful to believe the improvement was caused by the blue fruits.

It would be interesting to see if these principles induce biases when applied to situations that already have a known causal connection. For example, if somebody says they inspected something five times, will the frequency of their actions lead us to overestimate the effectiveness of their work relative to somebody who inspected it only once? Similarly, if somebody says that for the best results you should do something at 8:45 pm, would we overestimate the usefulness of that advice relative to somebody who says you should do it between 8:30 and 9? It’s doubtful that the influence of these frequency and specificity principles is large, but it seems plausible that they could influence certain decisions or judgments at the margin.
Legare, C., & Souza, A. (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.004

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