The Role of Rituals in Group Cohesion

A recent study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior [1] explores the pervasive human social behavior of participating in rituals – particularly rituals that seem to lack an obvious connection between the actions being preformed and any tangible outcomes that these actions are supposed to achieve such as rain dances or certain religious ceremonies. Many anthropologists have suspected that rituals promote increased social cohesion, although little experimental research has been conduct to explore this relationship.

In this study researcher had two groups of children, those in the “ritual condition” and those in the “control condition”. Each of these groups, in turn, was separated into a yellow ground and a green group. In both condition the yellow and green groups of children were seated on the floor in a line at opposite ends of gymnasium and given wristbands that corresponded with their groups color. Then each group’s instructor distributed bags of beads and string to each child, sat down in front of their group, and began leading the group by saying “Okay green [yellow] group, we are going to play with these beads in a special way, the way the green [yellow] group does it!” In the ritual group the instructor would then have the children build a necklace by touching the beads on their foreheads or clapping three times before stringing each bead. Whereas in the control group the children would then engage in unstructured play (which the vast majority of children used to create necklaces). The researchers made sure that both the ritual and control groups received equal amounts of social interaction and references to their group and their color.

Two weeks after the children had participated in this activity three days a week for two weeks the researchers interviewed the children individually and asked them about their level of in-group identification, for instance, how much they preferred members of their own color group and if they would rather give privileges to their group or the other group. The results were that children in the ritual condition were significantly more likely to express positive in-group attitudes than children in the control condition by almost half a standard deviation in average scores.

Thus, it seems likely that performing rituals as a group is not only associated with in-group identification, but actively contributes to it. And so although many religious rituals seem to be ineffective for providing tangible results even if they are ostensibly for that purpose, rituals do in fact promote socially adaptive attitudes such in-group attitudes that can motivate individuals to work as a cohesive group to a common end. Further researcher on this topic could be directed at whether engaging in rituals increase positive affectivity or overall feelings of belongingness in life.

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