- Ancient Egyptians transport a large statue by sledge, headed by a person who pours water from a vessel.
- Before stepping onto the pitch, a soccer player ties and reties his shoelaces for good luck.
- In Indonesia, a Kantu' farmer decides where to establish a new farming site based on the locations at which he spots special kinds of birds.
These are canonical examples of rituals — actions performed in a prescribed way, often with the intention of bringing about some desired end: a statue transported across sand, a winning game, a successful crop.
Rituals are sometimes dismissed as superstitious nonsense. But sometimes they work. (And not just by making us feel better, though they can do that, too.) Different rituals work for different reasons and the reasons may not be what you think.
Take the ancient Egyptians. It's been a longstanding mystery how they managed to transport the enormous stones used to build the pyramids. Some paintings depict materials transported by sledge. But even with this technology, overcoming the sliding friction created by the sand beneath would make the task of pulling all but impossible.
It turns out the answer has been recorded all along, in a wall painting at the tomb of Djehutihotep. The painting depicts a sledge headed by a person pouring water from a vessel, just in front of its leading edge. Egyptologists speculated that the water was part of a purification ritual. But a new paper published in Physical Review Letters suggests the water was the key to overcoming the sliding friction on the sand: with some water, but not too much, the force required to pull a heavy sledge over sand is greatly reduced.
What appeared to be "merely" ritual turned out to be a crucial part of the causal story explaining how the Egyptians constructed the pyramids. In a case like this, ritual is technology: a tool for effectively applying science, whether or not its users understand exactly how it works.
Now consider the soccer player who ties and reties his shoes, hoping to win the upcoming game. This example is only one of many performance-related routines: other athletes eat special pregame foods, try to catch imaginary balls or get a haircut before each game. In a recent article, psychology professor Cristine Legare explains:
"The lack of a transparent cause-and-effect explanation simply doesn't prevent people from engaging in rituals. In fact, the lack of a logical rationale behind these odd, seemingly idiosyncratic behaviors is part of the point. Rituals provide a socially sanctioned opportunity to exert personal control in the face of uncertainty ... "
"If the illusion of control rituals provide give athletes more confidence and reduces anxiety, they may provide a competitive edge."
In these cases, the rituals might work, but it's thanks to human psychology. Illustrating this same point, one study found that people completed a set of anagrams more successfully when they had a personal lucky charm, in part because the charm increased their feelings of self-efficacy and their persistence on the task. So retying one's shoes might indeed improve performance, just not by optimizing the biophysics of footwear. For athletes and for others, these rituals are quirky but effective self-interventions.
Finally, consider the birds. In a fascinating article at Aeon Magazine, Michael Schulson explains why the Kantu' method for selecting farming sites isn't so crazy. (Hint: It isn't because the birds reflect relevant ecological indicators — they probably don't.) It's because the success of the Kantu's tropical slash-and-burn agriculture is so unpredictable that it's better to hedge one's bets with a few random gambles than to risk everything on a plausible causal factor that's unlikely to hold up. Schulson explains:
"In the face of such uncertainty ... the human tendency is to seek some kind of order — to come up with a systematic method for choosing a field site, and, in particular, to make decisions based on the conditions of the previous year."
"Neither option is useful. Last year's conditions have pretty much no bearing on events in the years ahead (a rainy July 2013 does not have any bearing on the wetness of July 2014). And systematic methods can be prey to all sorts of biases. If, for example, a Kantu' farmer predicted that the water levels would be favourable one year, and so put all his fields next to the river, a single flood could wipe out his entire crop. For the Kantu', the best option was one familiar to any investor when faced with an unpredictable market: they needed to diversify."
In other words, the Kantu' method for site selection is better than alternatives precisely because it doesn't track plausible causal factors — factors that turn out not to support effective predictions, and that might lead to risky under-diversification. Better to make decisions that are effectively random, Schulson suggests, than to make them based on reasons that are neutral at best, and harmful at worst. For the Kantu', the site selection ritual is an elaborate roll of the dice.
So here's the surprising lesson to draw from the Egyptian builders, the soccer players and the birds: (some) rituals (sometimes) work. I don't just mean that they sometimes make us feel better, or that they generate side effects like social cohesion, valuable as these may be. Rather, I mean that they sometimes help bring about the very outcomes at which they're directed, like winning games or planting successful crops.
But rituals might not work for the reasons they seem to. Sometimes they're technology. Sometimes they're self- or social intervention. Sometimes they're intricate methods of random assignment. And sometimes they don't work at all. But working isn't always the point.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo