You Can’t Outsmart Your Own Nature
Humans aren't smart enough to out-think rituals.
Sam Harris once asked the Nobel laureate and Thinking, Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman if his thinking patterns have changed or improved as a result of his groundbreaking research on cognitive biases.
“Not at all. In terms of my intuitions being better than they were — no. And furthermore, I have to confess, I’m also very overconfident. Even that I haven’t learned. It’s hard to get rid of those things. I’ve been studying that stuff for over 50 years and I don’t think that my intuitions have really significantly improved.”
That was what came to mind as I recently read about rituals.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, the French historian and literary critic René Girard stated:
“The production of the sacred is necessarily and inversely proportional to the understanding of the mechanisms that produce it.”
Girard claimed that rituals are effective to the extent that we remain ignorant of how they work on us. I doubt this.
The psychologist Paul Bloom echoes this line of thinking in his excellent new book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.
“Those who fast for Yom Kippur or give up sweets for Lent see themselves as following the commands in holy texts and the wishes of God or, for the less devout, simply following tradition or honoring family obligations. Rituals work best, it seems when their functions are obscured…Self-conscious attempts to use rituals to build communities are destined to fail—rituals won’t work if they are done for utilitarian ends.”
The idea is that if we come to understand the mechanisms behind a ritual, then it loses its power over us. Is this true?
There is evidence that rituals have been around longer than modern humans. If a behavior or trait that is evident in humans has been around for longer than humans, then skepticism that it can be expunged is warranted.
Hardcore atheists get married. They partake in the ritual despite its religious history. Hardcore materialists believe we are all bags of stardust on a cold rock hurtling through space. But they still arrange funerals for their deceased loved ones.
Learning the scientific or rational explanation for a ritual might make us feel that we can exert control over that supposedly irrational part of our minds. But we really can’t.
Even creating rituals for utilitarian ends can be effective.
The military is one example.
What is the purpose of drill? Why have a bunch of service members march together while ensuring that each step and hand movement is in sync with everyone in the formation?
To instill a sense of what the French sociologist Émile Durkheim described as “collective effervescence.” An intense social experience. The emotional bond that comes with partaking in a shared physical activity with others.
Young people make this mistake with sex. They think it’s possible to hook up without “catching feelings.” For a small percentage of atypical individuals, this is possible. But for most people, it fails. Sex carried enormous pleasures and risks for our ancestors. We inherited their psychological, biological, and chemical legacies. On an intellectual level, sure, you can sleep with someone on a regular basis for a few months and tell yourself it means nothing. But when it ends, it will still feel like an actual breakup.
Knowing that an activity is intended for utilitarian ends on an intellectual level doesn’t remove the emotional aspect of the experience.
People crave this feeling of transcendence. They seek it at protest demonstrations, Mardi Gras, Burning Man, parades, etc.—anywhere people come together for a group experience.
Sports have the same effect. Forcing people to work together—and suffer together—builds solidarity.
Similarly, anthropologist Alan Fiske has found that sharing communal meals is a common bonding experience around the world. One reason is that eating together simulates the experience of eating with a family. Another reason is that people believe you are what you eat. So if you eat the same stuff, you are the same stuff. A signal of kinship.
In How The Mind Works, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes:
“Many tribes and coalitions (such as the Mafia) cut their fingers and rub them together to allow their blood to mingle, hence the expression ‘blood brothers.’ People also disfigure their bodies—by scarring, tattooing, piercing, hairstyling, and circumcision and other forms of genital mutilation…People in groups also engage in synchronized movements, like dancing, bowing, standing, sitting, marching, drilling, and exercising. The impression from the outside is of a single communal body rather than many individual ones…things that move together are seen as attached together…personal boundaries can also be eroded when people undergo an intense emotional experience together, like an ordeal of hunger, terror, or pain, or a drug-induced state of consciousness.”
He goes on:
“Here is a rule of thumb in anthropology: whenever a society (including ours) has a cultural practice that seems bizarre, it’s members may be manipulating their intuitive biology to enhance feelings of communality.”
Bizarre practices to enhance communal bonding isn’t limited just to humans, either.
In Games Primates Play, University of Chicago professor Dario Maestripieri describes an amusing ritual among young monkeys. A monkey will walk up to a favorite social partner, stick a finger up his nose, and wait for a reaction. If their relationship is good, nothing happens. The purpose is to test the strength of their social bonds so that they can then form alliances against other monkeys.
Similarly, young human males often address each other with abusive insults. The ritual tests the strength of the friendship. If the target of the insult took offense, then lighthearted abuse could not be given without it damaging the relationship.
Early on in the excellent TV series House, M.D., Dr. House is shown repeatedly borrowing money from his best friend Wilson despite having no need for financial assistance.
The show later reveals that House was simply testing Wilson to see how much Wilson valued their friendship. This is a stylized dramatization of what people often do in more subtle and unconscious ways to see who really has their back.
All of this is to say that I’m doubtful that we can separate ourselves from ritual even if we know how it works. Something so deeply embedded in our psychological architecture can’t be thought away by simply gaining awareness of it.
In Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller describes what he calls the “monkey dance.” Informed by both research and his years of experience in law enforcement, he describes the monkey dance as a ritualized form of male combat to establish dominance or secure territory.
It is typically non-lethal and intended to convey strength without escalating to the level of severe injury or death.
The steps are:
1. Eye contact, hard stare
2. Verbal challenge (“what are you lookin’ at?”)
3. Closing of distance, possible chest-bumping (this is when the arms extend)
5. Finger poke or two-handed push to the chest
5. Dominant hand roundhouse punch (if the person is untrained in combat)
Miller makes clear that males, especially young males, do not play the monkey dance. The monkey dance ritual plays them. In many species, males engage in ritualistic conflict, suggesting it predates humans.
This isn’t a top-down ritual, consciously planned or designed. Which makes its consistent regularities all the more intriguing.
We have millions of years of evolutionary programming packed into our brains, which can be hard to switch off in certain situations. Especially if alcohol is involved.
One way to circumvent escalation during this ritual is through submissive body language. Lowering your eyes, holding up your palms, and apologizing. It doesn’t feel good to do this. For men, backing down from this kind of status conflict is psychologically painful.
And this is true even when we know what is going on.
Even if you are a rational and reflective man who understands all of these dynamics, it is highly likely that if some dude shoulder checks you at a bar and insults you, you won’t simply think, “Oh this is just some silly monkey dance ritual,” apologize to avoid conflict, and go about your evening without thinking about the incident again.
If you take the steps necessary to avoid escalation, you pay a small but real psychological cost. Smaller than the cost of getting into a trashy bar fight. But it’s not nothing.
Or take marriage. This millennia-old ritual that has existed across cultures confers social status on the spouses.
Highly educated and secular Americans still get married at high rates. They still fall in love and partake in the ancient custom.
You can know all about the mechanisms behind how love works. You can study oxytocin, attachment theory, and the evolutionary purpose of pair bonding. But that won’t allow you to explain away or escape the feeling of falling in love.
Humans can’t outsmart their own animal nature. A nature that has been around long before we existed. And will endure long after we are extinct.