What's in a ritual? Examining the impact of ritual features and framing on perceptions of efficacy
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Rituals, or a sequence of required goal-demoted actions conducted to produce a desired outcome (e.g., Kapitány & Nielsen, 2016; Legare & Souza, 2012), are common human behaviors that have been present throughout human history and across many cultures (Mort & Slone, 2006; Rossano, 2009). Given their ubiquity across cultures, researchers have also wondered if there are common features of rituals and whether these features are tied to perceptions of their efficacy in bringing about particular outcomes. Certain features of rituals—such as a specified number of steps and repetition of procedures—may be linked to higher levels of perceived efficacy (Legare & Souza, 2012). The goal of the current study was to replicate and extend these findings to examine whether (1) including a nonreligious object and (2) framing the rituals as coming from a cultural context unknown to participants (far) or a cultural context familiar to participants (near), affects the perceived efficacy of rituals. Although previous research has treated the use of objects in rituals as a default (Kapitány & Nielsen, 2015; 2016; 2019; Barrett & Lawson, 2001), there is no research regarding how the inclusion of a nonreligious object in a ritual affects its perceived efficacy. I predicted that the use of nonreligious object in a ritual would increase perceptions of ritual efficacy in solving familiar day-to-day problems, given that the presence of objects seems to be a pervasive feature of rituals. We were also interested in the framing of rituals since the degree to which a ritual seems to come from a familiar versus unfamiliar context may change the degree of skepticism that participants feel when evaluating whether it will work to solve different problems. I predicted that when rituals were framed as coming a cultural context unknown to participants, there would be an increase in evaluations ritual efficacy since participants may be less skeptical. In a between-subjects design, participants (N = 350) were asked to evaluate how effective a series of rituals were in solving different problems (e.g., sleeplessness, a fight with a friend). The rituals either included a nonreligious object or no objects, and were framed as coming from the U.S. (near) or as from Brazil (far). Results indicated no main effect of ritual feature (F(1, 341) = 1.05, p = .306), however independent samples t-test results indicated significant differences between rituals with (M = 3.13; SD = 1.85) and without (M = 3.71; SD = 2.07) a non-religious object (t(349) = 2.78, p < .01. There was no main effect of ritual framing (F(1, 341) = 0.18, p = .672), and no interaction effect between ritual feature and framing (F(1, 341) = 0.21, p = .651). In contrast with my predictions, my findings indicate that the presence of non-religious objects does impact judgements of ritual efficacy (however, in the opposite direction than what was predicted), but framing does not impact judgments of the efficacy of rituals. I discuss the implications of these findings for the pervasiveness of different features of rituals.
In a second study, I examine the Theory of Ritual Competence which explains humans use their intuitions to make judgements about a ritual’s efficacy based on the appeal to a superhuman entity. Two previous studies, Barrett and Lawson (2001) and Sørensen et al. (2006), supports the theory of ritual competence, however, the rituals used in each were primarily novel, non-familiar rituals. In essence, the rituals themselves could have been seen as too abstract. Moreover, the terminology used in these studies (e.g., explicitly labeling an agent or object as “special”; Barrett & Lawson, 2001) does not reflect how we often learn about rituals. The theory of ritual competence should not be limited to unfamiliar rituals or those in which elements are explicitly labeled as “special”, humans should be able to reason in the way about familiar rituals as well. I presented participants (N = 161; based sample size on power analysis) with six familiar rituals, three that are religious and three that are not religious, each ritual will have three different versions of a prototype ritual which differ on the inclusion of a special agent and a special object. Participants rated how effective they thought each ritual is at obtaining the desired outcome stated in the ritual. I hypothesized two possibilities of ritual efficacy relating to the theory of ritual competence. Either participants would judge the presence of a special agent or object would only matter when these elements are held within the context of a religious ritual, or there would be no impact of religiosity, ritual efficacy evaluations will be similar for both religious and non-religious rituals based on the inclusion of a special agent and/or object. Results indicated no main effect of religiosity. In reference to ritual features, participants valued two special features over one special feature (either the agent or the object), and one special feature over rituals with no special features. There was a marginally significant difference between religious rituals with a special object and non-religious rituals with a special object. I discuss the implications of these findings on the theory of ritual competence, followed by an overall discussion about how rituals features impact the perceived success of rituals and the future directions for follow-up studies.