Rituals Help People Cope With Lack Of Control
October 26, 2013

Supernatural Reasoning Is An Integral Aspect Of Human Cognition

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

People in many areas of the world still hold a strong belief in witchcraft and magic, relying on rituals for everything from treating asthma to curbing infidelity. Even if the only witches you believe in are seen at Halloween, chances are high that you believe in some form of the supernatural, even if just the power of the ritual – whether wearing a lucky jersey to bestow luck on your favorite sports team or praying for a sick friend.

A majority of people develop beliefs in the supernatural at a young age, often through participation in rituals to influence events in the natural world. Cristine Legare and Andre Souza of The University of Texas at Austin studied real-life Brazilian rituals in order to create their own rituals to examine why people think they work. The researchers found that rituals help people gain a sense of control over their environment.

"The content of supernatural belief systems varies quite dramatically across cultures, but the underlying structure of supernatural belief systems is remarkably consistent,” Legare says. "Supernatural beliefs are constrained by our universal psychological system and thus are remarkably psychologically 'natural.'”

Over time, common characteristics of rituals have evolved based on intuitive concepts of causal reasoning, according to Legare. As Legare will describe in an upcoming presentation at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting, people rely on intuitive causal principles to evaluate how well rituals work. This is because such rituals usually lack explicit information about physical causation – for example, there is no cause and effect between rubbing a ceramic pot and making it rain.

Legare and Souza visited Brazil, where such rituals are called "simpatias." Simpatias are used to treat a variety of illnesses and problems. The researchers analyzed existing simpatias in order to develop their own.

Creating experimental rituals allowed the researchers to test which aspects of the simpatias led people to believe that they work. Participants were recruited from health clinics in the city of Belo Horizonte in southeastern Brazil. The team then replicated the results with university students from the US.

An example of the simpatias they designed was to test how specifying a time frame affects people's evaluations of the ritual:

"In the first day of last quarter phase of the moon, take the milk from a coconut and give it to the affected person to drink. After that, ask the person to spit three times in the hole made in the coconut. Following this, light up a brand-new white candle and drop the wax around the hole until the hole is sealed. Take the coconut to a far away beach or river."

In a prior study, published in Cognition in 2012, the team found that among other factors, specificity of the procedures was a significant determinant of whether people thought the simpatia was effective. "In the absence of information about causal mechanisms, our research demonstrates that intuitive biases in causal reasoning – such as repetition, number of procedural steps, and the specificity of procedural detail – are used to evaluate the efficacy of rituals,” Legare said.

Legare and Souza used a priming task in more recent work published in Cognitive Science. The priming task consisted of words associated with randomness before asking participants to evaluate the efficacy of simpatias. People primed with randomness – i.e., a lack of control – were more likely to rate simpatias as effective, according to the study. "We propose that rituals provide a means for coping with the aversive feelings associated with lack of control,” they wrote.

Supernatural explanations and scientific reasoning are not incompatible from a psychological perspective, according to Legare, contrary to popular belief. "One of the most remarkable characteristics of human cognition is the capacity to use supernatural and scientific reasoning to explain the world around us,” she says. "The process by which our shared cognitive system enables us to engage in sophisticated scientific reasoning on the one hand, and to entertain the prospect of an afterlife and supernatural powers on the other, intrigues me for both professional and personal reasons.”

Both natural and supernatural explanations are used by the same individuals to interpret the very same events. "We often use supernatural explanations to answer existentially arousing questions, such as 'why me?'”

The first time Legare observed this phenomenon was during her time studying how rural and urban South African populations explain the cause of AIDS. Supernatural and biological explanations were distinct yet complementary, Legare found. Biomedicine helped explain how a person contracted AIDS via a virus, for example, while witchcraft - a curse, for instance - explained why a person became infected with HIV.

"I am consistently surprised by how willing we are to consider multiple solutions to the same problem,” Legare says. "Rather than view our willingness to use both natural and supernatural remedies to treat problems as irrational behavior, I view this as deeply pragmatic and rooted in an attempt to exert control over our own lives.” The Brazilians she has studied are receptive not only to biomedical treatments but also to supplementary ritual-based treatments.

"Our ability to think about the supernatural is rooted in processes that start in infancy,” Legare says. And new evidence indicates that supernatural explanations often increase rather than decrease with age, she says. "Reasoning about supernatural phenomena is an integral and enduring aspect of human cognition.”