Science on Religion

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Ritual may help people to cooperate in everyday life

Group_ritual“I’m spiritual, but not religious” – it’s a claim everyone has heard, and given recent trends in society we’re liable to keep hearing more it as time goes on. But is spirituality just about one’s own inner beliefs? Isn’t is also partly about belonging to a community and taking part in rituals? New research suggests this might be true: not only are rituals important in religion, but the very act of completing actions like singing or bowing at the same time may prime people to cooperate with one another over the long haul. This means religion and spirituality aren’t just about feeling good – they may also be about survival.

Writing recently in Psychological Science, researchers Scott S. Wiltermuth and Chip Heath, both of Stanford University, reported on a series of experiments in which they investigated whether taking part in collective acts helps people to identify more closely with one another. Many thinkers had postulated that carrying out actions at the same time, something psychologists call “synchronous activity” or simply “synchrony,” would help bond people to one another and facilitate cooperation. This effect would explain why armies train soldiers by having them march in step, even though marching isn’t exactly the best strategy for today’s wars. Similarly, bowing and praying at the same time might create sympathetic bonds between churchgoers, fostering community among a group of parishioners.

Wiltermuth and Heath hypothesized that part of the underlying reason for the use of synchronous rituals is the solution to an age-old human dilemma: the free-rider problem, which refers to the tendency of some people within a group to do less than their fair share of the work. If synchrony helps people to feel bonded and committed to one another, maybe it could also cause potential free riders to feel a strong sense of identification with the collective. This, in turn, might reduce the amount of free riding in the group.

To test their hypothesis, the Stanford researchers carried out experiments using a series of simple tests to measure volunteers’ level of trust and willingness to invest in their group.

In one study, the researchers had a group of volunteers walk in step around campus, while a second group walked together but without any coordination between them. Later, both groups took part in an exercise that required each individual to choose a number between one and seven. If everyone in a group chose seven, the payout would be very high – nearly $8 per head. But if even one person chose a low number like one or two, all the people who selected higher numbers would lose most of their payout.

The point of this game was that groups with high levels of mutual trust would choose high numbers, but groups lacking trust would generally choose low numbers to protect their payout. In this study, participants who had walked with each other in lockstep were significantly more likely to choose higher numbers and report feeling connected with other group members, corroborating the researchers’ hypothesis.

In two other studies, synchronous action was similarly shown to increase trust and feelings of connectedness, while control groups and “asynchronous” groups (in which participants were told to perform complex actions but at different rhythms) showed less cooperative behavior. Synchrony was even shown to increase self-sacrificial behavior – in a game that pitted the collective good against individual profits, participants who had taken part in synchronous acts were more likely to reduce their personal gains in order to maximize their groups’ winnings. The effects of synchrony also lasted: while control-group and asynchrony group participants gave less money to the collective over time, the volunteers in the synchrony study groups kept up their high rates of ingroup generosity for the length of the experiments.

Interestingly, in none of the studies did the participants who had taken part in synchronous action report feeling happier than the control groups. This contradicted a long-standing theory that asserted collective action assists cooperation by generating shared feelings of joy and well-being.  In Wiltermuth and Heath’s research, it seemed that the very act of participating in synchronous action by itself was enough to increase sharing and cooperation.

If these results are reliable, such effects shed much-needed light on the phenomenon of human ritual and shared religious practice. Chanting, singing, reciting scriptures, and praying together might have both a subjective, religious function and an evolutionary, adaptive one – by enhancing group unity, religious synchrony may make human groups better able to withstand internal and external pressures, since prosociality is an important human survival tool. And this model may also explain why religious groups have often looked askance at mystics, iconoclasts, and non-participators, even those who claimed deep connections with God: a connection with the divine may be great, but it doesn’t keep society functioning. For that, we might just need ritual – and, with it, religion.

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