in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: October 2, 2022

Podcast #835: The Power of Ritual

Our lives are populated by rituals. Baptisms. Funerals. Graduations. Singing happy birthday, chanting cheers at a sports event, saying grace before dinner. When we perform rituals, there’s no causal link between the behavior and the hoped for effect; for example, there’s no causal connection between exchanging rings at an altar and becoming wedded to another human being.

But my guest would say that doesn’t mean that rituals are useless and irrational; in fact, doing two decades of research on rituals caused him to do a one-eighty on his perception of their value. His name is Dimitris Xygalatas and he’s an anthropologist and the author of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. Today on the show, Dimitris explains what defines a ritual and how a ritual is different from a mere habit. He shares how a greater understanding of ritual is upending our theories of human civilization, and the idea that “first came the temple, and then the city.” Dimitris describes how rituals can be seen to have their own kind of logic and purpose, as they build trust and togetherness, serve as an effective way to deal with stress, signal someone’s commitment to a group, and ultimately contribute to people’s overall well-being.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Our lives are populated by rituals, baptisms, funerals, graduations, singing happy birthday. Chanting cheers at a sports event saying grace before dinner. When we perform rituals, there’s no causal link between the behavior and the hoped for effect. For example, there’s no causal connection between exchanging rings at an altar, and becoming wedded to another human being. But my guest would say that doesn’t mean that rituals are useless and irrational. In fact, doing two decades of research on rituals caused him to do a 180 on his perception of their value. His name is Dimitris Xygalatas, he’s an anthropologist and the author of Ritual. How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. Today on the show, Dimitris explains what defines a ritual and how a ritual is different from a mere habit. He shares how a greater understanding of ritual is opening our theories of human civilization and the idea that first came the temple and then the city. Dimitris describes how rituals can be seen to have their own kind of logic and purpose as they build trust and togetherness, serve as an effective way to deal with stress, signal someone’s commitment to a group, and ultimately contribute to people’s overall wellbeing. After the show is over check out our show notes at All right, Dimitris Xygalatas welcome to the show.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Great to be with you.

Brett McKay: So you work in the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, but your approach to anthropology is different from a lot of other anthropologists. You study the cognition of people and also the physiology of how it interacts with their culture. So your approach is almost, it seems like it intersects with the field of psychology. How did you land on this approach to anthropology?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah, it’s true that I’m an unusual anthropologist or an unusual anything for that matter. See, in academia, we have these strictly defined disciplines and they approach human nature from very different perspectives. But at the end of the day, we are studying the same thing which is human nature. So in my case, I guess, it felt natural to me because growing up, the kinds of heroes that I had that I was watching on television, were people like Jane Goodall, people like David Attenborough, people like Jacques Cousteau and what these people were doing is that they were going into the field and they were combining firsthand personal experience with scientific measurement and scientific explanation. So it always felt natural to me, that to study human nature, you should apply this holistic perspective. Now, of course, we’re not always able to do this in academia. I was just lucky enough that as a graduate student and later as a faculty member, I was always part of institutions that just allowed me the creative freedom to do that.

Brett McKay: So one thing you’ve focused your area of study on is the influence of ritual on individuals, psychologically, physiologically. How did you end up studying rituals? Did you have any personal experience with ritual where you thought, well, I want to explore that even more?

Dimitris Xygalatas: I was always puzzled by ritual, growing up in Greece, I was reading National Geographic magazine and I would read about all of those exotic, or seemingly exotic rituals that were happening in faraway places, initiation ceremonies, some of them really painful, really flamboyant, really extravagant. And I always considered them as relics of the past. Something very distant that you couldn’t find in Western societies. So at some point as an adolescent already, I had this realization, which for me, was a big revelation that these types of rituals were also happening in my own backyard. In my home country. There were people who walked on fire and who engaged in these long pilgrimages that were very painful. They were crawling on hands and knees and they were bloody and bruised and all that. And suddenly the switch flipped and I started seeing ritual everywhere. I realized that my life too was extremely ritualized. This is not something that only exotic people do. This is something that is a common thread in humanity.

Brett McKay: Well, I think you note in the book, one ritual you noticed that happened on a daily or regular occurrence, but if you don’t look at it right, you don’t think of it as a ritual, is like sports, like soccer games in Europe are very ritualistic.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Absolutely. And this is in a sense, the essence of anthropology, the kinds of things, the kinds of cultural patterns that happen right in front of our eyes. Sometimes we can’t see them. We’re just too close to them to see them. So we need to go to another society to realize sometimes, something about our own society.

Brett McKay: So as an anthropologist, how do you define a ritual? Like what makes an activity ritualistic?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So anthropologists like to disagree about most things. So you’ll find many definitions of ritual, but in my book figuratively and literally when I talk about ritual, I mean those repetitive sequences of action that we consider to be very special. And yet either we have no explicit reason for doing them or even when we do, there’s no connection between the means and the goals. So for example, if I perform a rain dance, there’s no causal link between my dancing about and water falling from the sky.

Brett McKay: So, what makes a ritual different from a habit? Say someone who brushes their teeth every day. I mean that… Someone… Like an anthrop or an alien could look at that, “Well, that’s some kind of weird ritual that these humans take part in.” But you’d say, no, that’s not a ritual.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah, exactly. And brushing your teeth is a good example because it has a clear utilitarian function and the actions are causally connected to the outcome. So I’m brushing my teeth in order to cleanse them. Now, if I were to brush, to wave my toothbrush in the air with a belief that that cleanses my teeth or with no belief at all, now that would be a ritual.

Brett McKay: Okay. And so that’s interesting. So ritual activity, they have no effect on the external world, but that’s not to say they’re useless.

Dimitris Xygalatas: That is correct. Even though, and that’s my perspective in this book that’s the perspective on ritual, that even though it has no direct causal outcome, that is not to say that it has no impact in our world and our social world.

Brett McKay: Gotcha, Yeah, ritual like pledging allegiance to the flag, it doesn’t have an effect on the external world, but it does something to the person or people taking part in that.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Correct. These types of rituals will help us internalize social norms by getting us to align our appearances if we all dress the same. Our movements if we all march together. Our symbols, our sensory input. Our emotions, they also get us to feel like one. If we behave like one we feel like one. So, these rituals help us essentially integrate into a society.

Brett McKay: Well, another good example of just a regular activity that has an effect on the external world, but it can become ritualistic. That’s another interesting thing, is you talk about Japanese tea ceremonies, you can make tea and it has a purpose. All the things you do is to make the tea, but you can change it up so that it becomes ritual. How can you make an activity that does have an effect on the external world ritualistic?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So, one of the effects of rituals is that they create special experiences. In a sense, our brain recognizes those kinds of special experiences by their very structure. So, ritualized activities, they tend to be extremely repetitive, they tend to be very rigid. They have to be performed in the right way the same way always. They’re very redundant. They might go on for a very long time. They are typically loaded with sensory pageantry, they might arouse our sense of smell, our sense of touch or they may have colors and bells and whistles, all of those things. They signal to our brain that something of value is happening.

Brett McKay: So, it sounds like a habit or practice becomes a ritual when it’s not just repetitious, but you do the thing with an exactitude, with a formal exactitude that goes above and beyond what’s necessary if you were just doing something for a practical purpose. Like if you’re just making tea to drink it. Ritual also stimulates your senses, and it sounds like there’s an intent to make it special and above the ordinary. There’s a certain mindset you have to bring to an activity to make it a ritual. Something else you talk about in the book is that there’s this idea of the paradox ritual. What’s that paradox?

Dimitris Xygalatas: The paradox is that if you look at all human societies, across time and space, people have always spent an enormous amount of time, effort and even material resources in practicing all kinds of rituals. And yet when we ask people why they do it, the most common answer is just puzzled looks. People look at you and say, “What do you mean? That’s just what we do. It’s our tradition.” They might often refer to some myth or some ancestor, but generally what they’re saying is that, “Well, we just do them because that makes us who we are.”

Brett McKay: So, your job as an anthropologist is try to figure out, Well, why do they do these things? Why do humans do this stuff?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Well, okay, let’s talk about this. Are humans the only species that engage in ritual or do other animals engage in ritualistic behavior?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah, not at all. We’re not the only animal who does that. Of course, we all know about the mating rituals of birds, but the more we look in nature the more ritual we find. We will see that, for example, giraffes have these elaborate mating dancer where they rub their necks together. We know that chimpanzees, they will visit trees that seem to be special to them, and they will carry a rock so they will pile in front of those trees. So, they use them to drum them. They perform what Jane Goodall called, “A waterfall dance.” They have this in the presence of a waterfall, sometimes they get into this seemingly trans-mode. We know that elephants have mourning rituals, so sometimes they will travel long distances to visit the bones of their dead relatives especially if it’s some matriarch and so and so forth. So, ritual is everywhere in nature.

Brett McKay: Yeah, another one I’ve learned about recently is magpies, the bird. They’ll do like a funeral ritual when there’s a dead magpie, they all just line up in front of the bird and it looks like they’re having a funeral.

Dimitris Xygalatas: A lot of animals seem to have these kinds of mourning rituals. We see the magpies, and it’s been observed in species like geese and dolphins and whales and of course elephants and also in humans. Archeologists very often pinpoint the beginnings of our own species. One of the hallmarks, the behavioral hallmarks for defining our species is the presence of these death rituals.

Brett McKay: What makes a human ritual different from animal rituals?

Dimitris Xygalatas: What makes us different is that we have taken this behavior that is very common in nature and we just run with it. Human rituals, first of all, they are full of symbolism. They go beyond merely engaging in these stereotypical behaviors. They have all kinds of layers that involve wearing similar clothes or wearing all kinds of markers from body paint to waving flags. And of course also in their sheer quantity ritual pervades all aspects of our lives. And also the fact that we have taken what feels intuitive at the individual level and turned it into a social technology. So, every human group has these very elaborate rituals that other animals lack.

Brett McKay: So, yeah. You just mentioned earlier that anthropologists and archeologists show that humans engaging in ritual was like a turning point. We start seeing this in a collective and it’s spreading. You also talk about there’s this theory that your research and other research is suggesting that about ritual that could potentially upend how we think about the development of civilization. Can you walk us through that idea?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yes. It’s a very provocative hypothesis, which is, it has gained ground recently. It seems that it is possible that everything we thought we knew about the origins of civilization may actually be wrong. And evidence in favor of that hypothesis comes from sites like Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. This is the oldest known ceremonial structure. In fact, the oldest known structure of any kind. It goes back 12,000 years, which means that it’s not just twice as old Stonehenge and three times older than the pyramids, but it actually predates all of the things that we consider as the hallmarks of civilization. It predates the invention of writing, it predates farming and permanent settlement, the wheel and so forth. And this site is just gigantic. It took so much effort to build. It consists of these circular structures. I would call them temples that are surrounded by monolithic pillars. Each one of them about 15 tons, and they have all been carved by a nearby quarry.

Now, if you think about how a group of people who were living in the stone age were able to carve those stones and transport them those distances and use them to build those megalithic sites. This must have taken them years, and it must have taken hundreds if not thousands of individuals working together. And the most astonishing thing about that is that those individuals were hunter gatherers. In looks for all intents and purposes that they, these individuals just came together just to build this temple, and then only used it for these ceremonies. And they traveled sometimes thousands of miles to visit that temple. And further excavations in the area show that permanent settlement only begins several centuries later.

So this raises the very provocative hypothesis that despite what we might have thought it is not permanent settlement and farming and the creation of a food surplus that allowed us to create things like art and elaborate social organization or religious rituals. It might have been the other way around. It might have been the human thirst for ritual that led those individuals to congregate there, to work together, to build this temple, and then by necessity to establish permanent settlement in order to support it. In the words of Klaus Schmidt, who is the archeologist who discovered this site and excavated it, first came the temple, then the city.

Brett McKay: So that’s interesting. So why does ritual exist? Because like, from an evolutionary perspective, it seems pretty wasteful because you’re doing these activities. Okay so take these stone age guys you were talking about, they’re building these giant temples, they’re traveling long distances to get to this temple. They’re using lots of resources, spending a lot of time and they may believe their rituals have an effect on the world. But that effect it’s not clear or immediate, they’re doing these things based on a belief. So why do humans spend all this energy and time on ritual? Why does it exist?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So this is exactly the question that this book is asking and I’ve spent about two decades trying to answer that question. And the more we look, the more we realize that ritual actually has tangible functions that can be studied scientifically and can even be measured. So at the collective level, for example, for over a hundred years, anthropologists have argued that ritual serves to boost social bonding and create social cohesion. But beyond that, there wasn’t much scientific research to support those claims. And in recent decades, we know from experimental work, both mine and by other people that this seems to be true. For example, we have conducted field experiments in Spain and in Mauritius and in other places. And we find that when people take part in those rituals, their emotional reactions are aligned and that is predictive of their social sentiments. So they feel closer to each other. So their experience changes. They have a more transformational experience and then their behavior changes. For example, we use economic experiments and we see that people become more generous towards each other after the performance of those rituals. We also see that their status increases, they begin to trust each other more. And we can see this even at the level of hormones.

Brett McKay: Well, how do you, so I’m curious, how do you measure that stuff? So when someone’s engaging in a ritual, do you stop and take blood tests? Like how are you able to see these physiological changes take place?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So just a few decades ago, these types of studies would not be possible just because we didn’t have the right equipment to do them. But now we have things like wearable sensors. So now we can go into your context. As you said, these are some of these people’s most important moments in their lives. So you can’t just interrupt the ritual to take your samples. What you have to do is use wearable devices that are going to record continuously throughout the ritual. And you have to use devices that are small enough, so that they’re unintrusive, that they’re worn under the clothes and nobody can see them and so on and so forth. And today we have the ability to do that.

For example, we have measured, we have used these types of devices to measure heart rate responses in the context of a fire walking ritual. And in that context, we see that people’s heart rates begin to synchronize and they do that no matter what they’re doing. So it’s not just that they’re dancing together and their heart rates are synchronized. Some of them are walking on fire. Others are watching, but they have the same emotional reaction. And in further studies that we conducted in sports stadiums, we see that this heart rate synchrony is predictive of both how they experience those events and how they feel towards each other.

Brett McKay: Interesting. So rituals can bring people together. You also talk about, there’s this chapter where you talk about how ritual plays a part in just human development, and that even kids at a pretty early age, they’re able to recognize when an activity is a ritual. What does the research say there?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So it seems that some of the mental mechanisms involved that allow us to acquire and use ritual throughout in our lives are already there in early childhood. For example, I have a two-year-old in my house and he already has very strict, very rigid routines. He’ll wake up in the morning and he wants his specific little toy car. And then he will want to sit in the specific chair in a specific way. And even if he doesn’t need the belt on that chair, he insists that he has to wear it because that’s the right way to do it, and so on and so forth. So already from the age of two, we see that children are obsessed with structure, with order, and they’re also very good at imitating. And these are very useful things for a human being, because we are a hyper social animal, we’re social learners. So it’s very useful to us at an early age to start imitating others and to start doing the things the way we have been taught to do them. And these are some of the traits that really allow us to be very good at ritual.

Brett McKay: No I’ve noticed that with my own kids, they get really hung up on traditions. So it’s like if, you know, when once Christmas rolls around, like we, it’s like we have to do these things. And sometimes as parents we’re like, “Ah, geez, I don’t wanna do that. It’s gonna take a lot of work. I’m tired.” Like, “No, we have to do it. It’s tradition.” And I think it’s interesting that as a kid they get really focused on that. Okay. So early on kids are able to see ritual and then you just make, you make this case that cultures use ritual as a way to inculcate societal norms. And what’s important to the culture to children.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yes.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for you words more sponsors. And now back to the show. So let’s talk about, well, you’ve done research is like, okay, when is it that humans take part in ritualistic behavior? ‘Cause we don’t do it all the time. So what does your research say? Like when are we more or likely to take part in ritualistic behavior?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So if you look at ritualization, so our tendency to behave in ritualistic ways in repetitive behavioral patterns, or to just fall back to our familiar cultural patterns that tendency really increases when we’re under some of the most stressful situations. So what are some of the most stressful contexts that we can find humans in? Those are situations like warfare, illness, when they’re gambling in the context of sports. And what those scenarios have in common is that all of them include a lot of uncertainty. And a lot of the time the stakes can be very high there. And in fact, we know that the higher the stakes, the more ritual we observe, for example, athletes are very famous for their superstitions and their rituals. Now you might expect that better athletes would rely less on ritual and more on their skill. In fact, studies show the opposite. They show that the better the athlete, the more rituals they have. And my interpretation of that is that, it’s because the stakes are higher when they compete with other better athletes.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought the research on sports and superstition was interesting ’cause you highlight that they don’t do it all the time and it not all sport. And there’s some sports that are more likely to encourage superstitious behavior. And it’s basically sports where there’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s like a lot of luck. So and baseball is a perfect example of that you have batters have this, have a lot of superstitious behavior because there is skill involved, but a lot of it is luck. And so there’s a tendency where there’s, since there’s uncertainty, they’re gonna do these certain things in order to get a hit.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yes. And of course some sports also might encourage or allow for more ritualistic behavior just because of their structure, just because of the fact that there are a lot of breaks. That’s why, so we see basketball players. For example, they engage in a lot of rituals before shooting free throws, tennis players they have a lot of rituals because there are a lot of breaks in tennis and so on.

Brett McKay: So, is ritual just a way to soothe our feelings of worry and anxiety?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So that is the idea that has been proposed for over a hundred years by anthropologists. And until very recently, nobody had tested it. So me and my colleagues were among the first teams to test that theory. And we went about in several steps. So we started in the lab and in a laboratory experiment, we induced anxiety. We brought people in inside the lab and we stressed them up by telling them they had to prepare for a public speech, which really tends to stress people up. And we were monitoring their physiology. So we know they were stressed and we were also monitoring their behavior. So we had motion detectors and we see that the more stressed they get, the more ritualized their behavior. So the more patterned and rigid and repetitive it becomes. So this was the first step for the second step. We went out to the real world and we studied Hindu rituals in the island of Mauritius.

And we saw that when people go into the temple to perform those rituals, their heart rate variability increases, which shows that they’re better able to cope with stress. And we followed up with other studies. We found that people who take part in more collective rituals, they have lower cortisol levels. And we found that they are electrodermal activity, another indicator of stress is reduced after performing ritualized behaviors and so on, and so forth. So from all this evidence and from other studies, we know that ritual can actually work as a coping strategy to soothe anxiety.

Brett McKay: So yeah, it sounds like what we do with rituals. We’re creating order out of chaos?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Exactly. So our brain is a predictive machine. It makes active inferences about the state of the world all the time. We don’t just passively absorb stimuli. We use our prior knowledge to expect what’s going to happen. If I see a tiger out there, I don’t wait to see if it’s aggressive. I have some assumptions about it, which come from my prior knowledge. So because our brain does this all the time when it has no ability to make predictions, which means when the situation is very uncertain, when we don’t know what to make of it, what to expect. That’s when we experience anxiety and that’s where ritual comes in. If ritual is anything, it is structure and order.

When we participate in a ritual, we know exactly what’s going to happen. And we know exactly when and how, and this gives us a sense of control over the world. And it doesn’t really matter if that control is real or illusory. All that matters is that it has actual, tangible, measurable effects on our ability to reduce stress.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It increases our sense of urgency, and we feel like we have more control of situations and that makes sense, like why death would have rituals, not only in humans, but in animals, it gives you like, that’s the most uncertain thing there is. And so it gives you a sense of discomfort, engaging those rituals around death.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Absolutely. We might be tempted to think that death rituals are for the dead, and of course they’re addressed to the dead, but their most important function is for the living. It helps them cope with their anxiety. It helps them part with their dead, through a more gradual process. It allows them to say goodbye. And that’s why in some societies we have more mortuary rituals that involve keeping the dead around for sometimes, even for months to perform those rituals.

Brett McKay: What country is that, it’s an Asian country, right? Where they like they’ll make like, basically they’ll just treat them like, they’re still alive. Like dress them up for a long time?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah. So there’s an Indonesian tribe called the Toraja. And in that context when somebody dies, they will keep their body in a room in their house, on a bed for months. Then as the body gets dried up, they prepare for this elaborate ceremony that sometimes can require tons of material resources, things like the sacrifice of buffalo. And during that time, they treat the dead as if they were living. They bring them food, they bring them the latest gossip, they chat with them and you can really see that this is a process that allows the family members to gradually come to terms with the new reality. And even after they lay them to rest once a year, they will take them out of their tomb and they will parade those desiccated bodies around the village for everybody to see.

Brett McKay: Okay. So ritual can make us feel calm and soothe our anxiety in a world of uncertainty. And I think it’s why we like to do rituals, even if it’s like, not even like things you do on a daily basis, but like you have holidays, you celebrate, you’re like at least there’s Christmas, or at least there’s Thanksgiving I can look forward to in my life, that gives me some stability. Going back to this idea of, of how ritual encourages group cohesion, your studies showed that individuals who take part in rituals, they sync up emotionally, their hormones, oxytocin is released and there’s sort of a sense of togetherness, but you also talk about the type of ritual can influence whether a group feels more or less cohesive, you talk about that there are two modes of ritual. What are those modes and which promotes group cohesion more?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah. So this is an idea that comes from Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, who was my doctoral advisor. And he says there, if you look at the rituals that are practiced around the world, you might get the impression at first that there’s infinite variability. But when you study them more systematically, you’ll see that they fall into patterns. So when you look at what types of rituals are out there, they almost invariably fall into one of two types. One type is those rituals that are performed very frequently. For example, Islamic prayer, five times a day, Christian mass may take place every, every week and so on and so forth. Those rituals will tend to be low key, low arousal, even on the boring side, because they rely on repetition to drill in the sense of identity and similarity with others.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have these rituals that are very high in arousal and those rituals, they don’t tend to take part very frequently. They will happen once a year, sometimes once a generation think of a wedding or a presidential inauguration, those types of rituals. Now those types of rituals, if they are to have the same kind of impact, because they cannot rely on repetition, they have to rely on arousal and arousal creates a scar, if you will, in our brain, it creates those episodic memories that do not come through doing the same thing again and again, and again, they just come through doing this one big, very impactful, and sometimes even traumatic thing. And if you think about the kinds of situations in which we experience those kinds of traumatic events and the kinds of people that we tend to be with, so who are you more likely to cry with? Who are you more likely to experience pain and suffering and sorrow with? Typically, that’s your closest relatives. So by engaging in those rituals with other people, you get this sense of kinship. You get this strong sense of bonding that is stronger than the type of bonding that you can get through those low key rituals. And one example of this is going to war.

So a lot of people have pointed out to the fact that when soldiers are willing to sacrifice their life in the battlefield, they don’t do it for any higher ideals, or they don’t do it for the flag, they don’t do it for their country, they do it for their comrades. And the reason they do it for their comrades is that those are the people they have experienced those highly intense, often traumatic moments in the battlefield. Now these high arousal rituals, rather than waiting for something like war to happen, they proactively put participants through those painful experiences or stressful experiences in order to create that sense, that strong sense of kinship and bonding.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And that’s why the military they put recruits through this really arduous bootcamp experience because it builds a sense of camaraderie and commitment to the group. And the meaner, the more intense the training, I’m thinking like BUD/S for Navy Seals, the more transformative the ritual is. And as you were talking about those high arousal rituals, you know the type of thing that happens, maybe once a lifetime, it made me think of rights of passage rituals from different cultures, they’re like that. Were there any that stood out to you that were high arousal and really left an impact on the participants?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah, absolutely. Some of the rituals that I have studied can be extremely painful. For example, in Mauritius I study some of the rituals of the local Tamil community. And those are rituals that are very widespread. They’re performed in Southern India and Sri Lanka, but wherever else we have members of the Indian diaspora, especially Tamils. And some of those rituals involve piercing the body with hundreds of needles and skewers and even rods. The size of broomsticks, that are pierced through the cheeks. And you can imagine that people have to hold them with both hands and bite down at them, because if they don’t just by the weight and the size of them, they will rip their faces off. And as they do this, they will also carry these large miniature shrines that can weigh up to a hundred pounds and they’ll hold kavadi, which literally means burden.

And they carry this burden throughout the entire day until they reach the temple of Murugan. And when they do that, they also have to carry them up the hill. So it’s an excruciatingly painful ritual. We have studied this over many seasons and we also see that this type of ritual can create very strong bonding effects and it can play a fundamental role. It can leave an indelible mark on people’s individual and collective identity.

Brett McKay: Well, you also talk about these painful rituals. So the one you just described and other ones, they serve as a strong signal to those in the community that you are, you are a potential ally. So how do these like painful rituals serve as a strong signal?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yes. So ritual can have a communicative value. It can signal some things that are otherwise very hard to observe. In a lot of human rituals, we see that what people are signaling is their commitment to the community. Now commitment is very tricky to discern. Of course, you can always say that you’re committed to a group, but that’s a cheap signal, right? Anybody can say that they’re loyal to the group, but the only way to know is through observing other people’s behavior. And of course, when can you observe other people’s behavior? When can you observe loyalty? Well, when you go to the battlefield, for example, but that might be too late. So that’s what these rituals do. They preemptively put people into a situation where they have to signal their commitment. So let’s take for example, a gang initiation ceremony in those initiations, a lot of the time people are asked to do something either extremely painful or psychologically horrible. Something like murdering somebody. Now, if you’re willing to do this, just to be one of us, then we can be pretty certain that you really want to be one of us. That’s the underlying logic of that type of communicative signal.

So if you’re willing to put a skewer through your cheeks to take part in that ceremony, then we can be pretty certain that you’re a committed loyal member of our group. And it’s a very effective device because it helps both those who send the signal and those who receive the signal. So those who send the signal, their status increases in their community. And we know this from a lot of studies that show that people who perform these acts of devotion, they are seen as more moral they’re seen as more hardworking, more trustworthy and so on and so forth. And to those who receive this signal, that’s also very valuable because they can discern the most trustworthy individuals and the best corporators and then they can preferentially relate to them.

Brett McKay: Okay. So it can build cohesion in multiple ways. I’m curious when people are taking part in these really painful, intense rituals, what is… What’s going on physiologically? Are they under stress or have they somehow been able to separate mind from body where they can no longer feel the pain of the ritual?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So our measurements show that people are under extreme stress, we see that their levels of electrodermal activity are higher than anything else they experience in their lives. We see that their heart rates can sometimes reach 230, 240 beats per minute levels that I never thought were possible actually, before I went into this. At the same time, we see that in some of those rituals, people might experience a state of dissociation, so they don’t necessarily remember their stress. So when we asked them to describe their state of arousal during those rituals, in some cases, people have told me that they felt as calm as they had ever been. And they thought that during the fire walking ritual, for example, their heart rates would be lower than any other part of the ceremony. While, in fact, it was the exact opposite, invariably, we found that people had 200, 220 beats per minute at that time. So it is both extremely stressful, but at times, because of that stress, perhaps it can lead to these states of dissociation where people do not at least remember their stress.

Brett McKay: It’s interesting. So the sociologist Émile Durkheim talked a lot about this idea of collective effervescence that happened during rituals.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yes.

Brett McKay: What is collective effervescence and what role does that play in ritual?

Dimitris Xygalatas: So Durkheim described this as a jolt of electricity, running through a group of people when they congregate to enact one of those highly emotional ceremonies, the best way I would describe it is if you’ve ever felt goosebumps at the back of your neck, while you were in the middle of a large concert or a sports stadium, or a large demonstration where you have a large number of people congregating and joined for a common cause and engaging in all those ritualized behaviors like chanting. For Durkheim, that’s one of the ways by which these rituals, they transform a group of individuals into a cohesive whole that is greater than of the sum of its parts. And for over a hundred years, this was a very elusive term. Nobody knew what to do with it. Nobody knew how to measure the alignment of emotional states. Nobody knew how to measure this togetherness that people are said to feel in the context of those rituals. So my team and I were the first ones to try to quantify collective effervescence. So we looked at people’s physiology during those rituals, and we see that when they take part in highly arousing rituals, their heart rates begin to synchronize. And that physiological synchrony in turn is predictive of social bonding. So Durkheim was right?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I experience that collective effervescence whenever I go to a University of Oklahoma football game. And it’s really interesting ’cause I’ve gotten kind of cynical about collegiate sports. I just think it’s ’cause I go and I see these big giant stadiums I’m like, “Man, we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on sports, what’s going on here?”. But then when I go to a game… My kid loves football, so we’ll go to a game and they start doing the chants, and the bands coming out and the drum major has got his head tilted back and I start getting the chills down my neck, I’m like, “This is great”. Even the most cynical person can experience that collective effervescence.

Dimitris Xygalatas: Absolutely. And American universities might be unique in the world in terms of how much attention they pay to sports. And a lot of people think that might be just a waste of resources, but at the same time, they might also be unique at the level of loyalty they induce in their alumni, and that can be seen by the levels of donations that they receive.

Brett McKay: We’ve talked about how ritual can help us soothe our anxiety. It can give us order in our life when everything seems crazy. It can bring us together with people. It can signal to others that we are committed to the group. You’ve also looked at how ritual can influence just our overall well-being. Our well-being in general. What does the research say there?

Dimitris Xygalatas: There are a lot of correlational studies that are mostly focus on religion and they often find a positive relationship between religiosity and well-being but if you probe a little bit deeper you begin to see that it’s not really about belief, this is more about ritual. So it’s people who go to a lot of ceremonies, who take part in those collective ceremonies, those are the ones that reap the benefits of those religious systems, and I believe this happens at at least two levels. At the psychological level, taking part in those ceremonies, as we discussed, gives you a sense of order and control, and it helps you reduce anxiety. At the social level, it helps create bonds and helps create and elicit networks of social support. And we know from other studies that social support networks are probably the best buffer against anxiety. So rituals are these very efficient social technologies that manage to harness different types of mechanisms in our psychology in order to produce these effects at multiple levels.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, you’ve been studying ritual for over two decades. How has your research changed how you approach ritual? Do you try to incorporate ritual in your own life. What’s going on there?

Dimitris Xygalatas: Yeah. My view of ritual changed completely. It was a 180 because I grew up in Greece where the types of rituals that I would take part in, at least the collective ones, were all forced upon me. At school, we had morning prayer and we had compulsory church attendance once a month, and we had to take part in parades and if we didn’t, we would get penalized. So I despised those kinds of rituals, I couldn’t understand why they made us do them. And now after two decades of studying rituals, I have come to see that those types of behaviors have very tangible effects. And I’ve also come to see that in my own life, I do have a lot of rituals, and I too consider them very important. For example, if you see me prepare my morning coffee and the level of detail that goes into that, and the fact that I have to have it in a specific cup and in a specific way, and if I don’t do that, I feel that my day is not starting very well, or the types of collective rituals, for example whenever I go back to my home country, whenever there’s a game, I have to visit that football stadium and I have to engage in those collective rituals, the group chanting, and I still get those goosebumps at the back of my neck. And one important thing to note here is that I have been in bigger stadiums. I’ve seen presumably bigger teams. Although, my team, of course, is the best. [laughter]

But I don’t get goosebumps there. So going back to Durkheim’s view, he said that those types of rituals, they don’t just create social emotions out of thin air, they bring those who share them into a closer communion. And that’s exactly what I see in myself.

Brett McKay: Well, Dimitris this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Dimitris Xygalatas: You can go to my website, which is my last name. This is a perk of having a very rare last name. It’s and the links will lead you from there.

Brett McKay: Alright. Well, Dimitris Xygalatas, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dimitris Xygalatas: My pleasure.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dimitris Xygalatas. He’s the author of the book, ‘Ritual. How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living’. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website,, and that’s spelled Also check out the show notes at where you find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast, make sure to check out our website at where you’ll find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles. There’s about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy Ad-Free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher App on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying Ad-free episodes of the the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, It helps out a lot. Done that already? Thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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