Why Would Performing an Extreme Religious Ritual Make People More Generous and Prosocial?

Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas answers.

In our recent study, we found that people were more generous in a charity task and reported more inclusive identities after performing an extreme ritual compared with after performing a collective prayer. And the more painful the ritual experience, the higher the donation and the stronger the inclusive identity. Impressively, the prosocial effects of the extreme ritual, which consisted in piercing of the body and carrying heavy objects for miles, extended not only to active performers but also to non-performing attendants of the ordeal. This shows that extreme rituals can increase prosociality for the entire community. In a previous study, we found that heart rate patterns during a fire-walking ritual were synchronized among performers and related spectators, but not unrelated ones, which indicates that membership in the group is a prerequisite for experiencing its effects.

As is usually the case with social phenomena, there is probably more than one factor underlying these results. It is well-established by psychological research that high arousal can increase liking for others and that increased effort can enhance the appreciation of an experience and the group in the setting of which it takes places. Furthermore, costly actions may function as signals of commitment to the community, thus increasing trustworthiness and cooperation among and toward practitioners. Whatever the mechanisms driving them, these effects have long been hypothesized in social science, but this study provides the first direct evidence from a real-life ritual that such extreme ordeals can promote prosocial attitudes and behaviors.

 

Dimitris Xygalatas is the director of the LEVYNA Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion and an associate professor in the department for the study of religion at Masaryk University, and an assistant professor in the department of culture and society at Aarhus University.