Tag: Anthropology

Ritual, by Dimitris Xygalatas

Whether weddings, national parades or religious festivals, rituals present a puzzle. We stress their importance, reflecting on these services as some of life’s most cherished moments. And yet, when prompted, most of us can’t explain why we perform them. What explains their persistence, and this apparent contradiction?

In his new book Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, trailblazing anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas takes us on an electrifying tour of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals. By fusing the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, Xygalatas presents a powerful new perspective on our most sacred ceremonies.

Ancient traditions

A native of Greece, rituals have fascinated Dimitris since his early childhood. Flicking through his first copy of the National Geographic and learning about exotic cultures in faraway places sparked his curiosity, planting the seeds of his career in anthropology.

Ironically, Dimitris started out as a ritual sceptic. “To me, the human obsession with ceremony seemed puzzling”, Dimitris writes. “Why do so many strange traditions persist in the modern age of science, technology and secularisation?”

Dimitris’s worldview was shaken when his father took him to his first football game. “For most of the game my father kept trying to lift me up so that I could watch the action. But that didn’t matter much to me. The most interesting part was what was happening in the terraces”. Forming a sea of black and white shirts, forty thousand football fans created a spectacle Dimitris would never forget. “As soon as the referee blew the first whistle, it was as though a jolt of electricity had run through the stadium . . . It was as though the crowd had become a single entity with a life of its own.”

According to Dimitris, sports events like this mirror some of our most primitive ceremonies. “There is something about high-arousal rituals that seems to thrill groups of individuals and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts.”

Even as the Western world loses its religion, Dimitris argues that rituals remain rampant. “From knocking on word to uttering prayers, and from new year celebrations to presidential inaugurations, ritual permeates every important aspect of our private and public lives.”

Evidently, the human desire to congregate is ancient. From prehistoric hunter-gatherers to the urbanites of the 21st century, people across cultures and throughout history have felt compelled to form large crowds and participate in communal ceremonies.

The oldest known ritual is the funeral, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of burials taking place over a hundred thousand years ago. However, humans do not hold a monopoly on rituals. Whether it’s the ritualised greetings of chimpanzees, frisky flamingos engaging in elaborate courtship rituals, or elephants trekking vast distances to pay respect to their dead, rituals have been spotted across the animal kingdom. That said, Dimitris stresses the prevalence and extent of our ritualistic practices is uniquely human.

My findings, as well as convergent discoveries from a variety of scientific disciplines, reveal that ritual is rooted deep in our evolutionary history. In fact, it is as ancient as our species itself – and for good reason.

One camp of scientists argue that the gravitational pull of rituals is an evolutionary accident, and that our ritualistic behaviour is the result of misfiring mental systems that detect danger. Although the ‘mental glitch hypothesis’ should be taken seriously, Dimitris argues the weight of evidence is stacked against it. “Evolution is not wasteful”, asserts Dimitris. “Behaviours that are impractical or maladaptive do not tend to stick around forever.”

Social glue

So, what are the functions of rituals then? In essence, Dimitris argues that rituals are cultural gadgets that help solve a raft of recurring challenges we modern humans face. These challenges include: finding a romantic partner, coping with the pain of losing a loved one, and instilling a sense of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps most importantly, rituals help solve the central challenge of getting large groups of fiercely tribal primates to cooperate.

Anthropologists have long explored the functions of traditions, amassing rich descriptions of the world’s most exotic rituals. Despite the groundwork they laid, Dimitris points out that anthropologists rarely put their theories to the test.

Through his ingenious use of biometrics, Dimitris reveals that rituals can now be detected in the human body. That is, by measuring how hard people’s hearts are pumping, and other aspects of their physiology.

Dimitris first experimented with these gadgets in the Spanish village of San Pedro, Manrique. Held on the summer solstice, the ‘festival of San Juan’ floods their small village with visitors, who catch a glimpse of the locals walking bare foot across burning hot coal. Dimitris got the idea when heard people repeatedly say that when they go out onto the stadium, ‘all three thousand people feel like one’. To Dimitris, this sounded like what the eminent sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’— a pulse of energy that runs through a large crowd and transforms them into a cohesive unit. Perhaps these biometric sensors can capture this sense of oneness?

Clearly, this firewalking ritual evokes strong emotions—and the intensity of these emotions is felt by everyone. Dimitris and his colleagues’ research revealed an extraordinary level of synchrony among people’s heart rates, both amongst the firewalkers and spectators.

Fire-walking isn’t just a challenge for participants. Spectators also feel the heat. Image credit: Dimtris Xygalatas

Ultimately, extreme rituals like the San Juan firewalk trigger a flood of stress and emotions, which in turn binds people together. “Each individual’s experience is affected and amplified by those of others, like a thousand streams of water merging to form a river that is faster and more powerful than any single stream could ever be.”

The dark side of rituals

Rituals are a source of magic, and like all potions, they can be used for good or ill.

Take degrading initiation rituals, also known as ‘hazing’ in the United States. As the crushing weight of pain and humiliation can only really be appreciated by those who have experienced such an ordeal, hazees quickly become comrades. This helps explain why societies at war perform much more brutal initiations, as these rituals instil cohesion at a time when solidarity is absolutely essential. However, Dimitris suggests if we take these rituals out of context and perform them for no good reason (say, performed at a frat party for shits and giggles), they can be extremely harmful.

That said, there are a range of rituals that seem terrible on the surface, where Dimitris and his research team have scratched to reveal these rituals’ hidden benefits. Exhibit A: the Thaipusam festival. Performed by millions of Tamil Hindus every year, the Thaipusam is one of the world’s oldest religious festival. The most extreme aspect of it is the Kavadi Attam, where devotees are repeatedly punctured with needles whilst carrying heavy shrines in a long procession to their holy temple (are you tempted?).

If you expect undergoing such hell would trash your health, you’re mistaken. Whilst the pilgrim’s wounds healed quickly, Dimitris and his colleagues discovered their mental health was substantially improved through suffering this torment— where those who suffered the most experienced the greatest psychological benefits.

A sceptic would argue that there are other activities that offer similar benefits and carry far less risk. For example, intense exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in treating major depression. However, Dimitris notes the conundrum of getting someone who’s suffering depression to summon the strength to go for a run. “Cultural rituals may help circumvent this problem by exerting external pressure to participate.”

Ritual feasts

Whilst exploring some of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals, Xygalatas also reflects the more mundane moments in our lives, including the artificial landscape of the modern workplace.

There are sound ethical and legal reasons why you don’t want to subject your teams to extreme rituals (HR would not be pleased to hear of new hires having needles stuck in their backs). And whilst drinking is an easy way to alleviate anxiety in awkward social situations, the appropriateness of alcohol in work settings is increasingly being called into question. However, there are alternatives that are both suitable and effective.

Having lived in Denmark, Dimitris documents what he deems peculiarities of Danish working practices. The Danes apparently work less than virtually all other nations in the world. Whilst this can help us understand why Danes are so happy, they certainly aren’t slackers. To the contrary, Danes are also amongst the most productive workers in the world. How on Earth is this possible?

Whilst numerous factors are probably involved, Dimitris suspects Danish workplace rituals can explain their striking successes. “While at first glance the numerous rituals of the Danish workplace may have seemed odd or wasteful, as soon as I embraced them it became clear to me that they contributed something vital to the efficient, productive and enjoyable work environment.”

Although less time crunching spreadsheets can be perceived as wasting company resources, the Nordics appreciate the social benefits of team activities and communal feasts, and that these benefits more than outweigh the costs. “Eating together is an intimate act, usually reserved for close relatives and friends. Sharing food therefore symbolises community and helps strengthen bonds among colleagues”.

Focusing further afield than efficiency, Dimitris suggests that communal feasts and team activities effectively harness the power of rituals, strengthening social bonds whilst also boosting morale. “What is more, work group rituals make work-related tasks feel more meaningful, which makes for a happier as well as more productive workforce.”

Of course, it’s not as easy to forge strong bonds amongst corporate workers, as does, say, devotees enduring backbreaking toil in a long procession to their holy temple. However, sprinkling the modern workplace with rituals can help the ordinary feel a little bit more meaningful and special.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living is published by Profile Books. Click here to buy a copy.

‘Big Men’ in the office

It’s a well-established fact that size influences our choice of leaders.

For example, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are disproportionately over 6 feet tall. Similarly, the height of presidential candidates can partially predict the outcome of an election. Since the start of the 20th century, over 70% of US elections between the two parties have been won by the taller candidate.

Despite robust empirical evidence demonstrating our fondness of tall leaders, there isn’t as much known about the impact of leader’s weight on our leadership preferences.

To broaden this body of knowledge, Kevin Kniffin and his colleagues Vicki Bogan and David Just have recently published a paper in the journal PLOS One, that explores the impact of leader’s weight on their persuasiveness.

Big Man Ting

Anthropologists who have lived with hunter-gatherer tribes are very familiar with leaders being referred to as ‘Big Men’.

In addition to being influential and persuasive, leaders of pre-industrial societies also have to be physically formidable. Indeed, recent expeditions with hunter-gatherer tribes have found that physical size is associated with leadership— but primarily among men.

There are several reasons why this is the case, including the importance placed on fighting ability. Across the natural world, animals that are the most powerful and menacing fighters are generally granted high status (if you’re sceptical, watch one of David Attenborough’s latest documentaries). The same is partially true for humans too.

However, Kevin and his colleagues argue that overindulgence is a marker of social status and wealth within traditional communities (if people are struggling to eat and you’re actually fat, you’ve got to be doing something right).

Melanesian Big Men
Melanesian men in traditional dress (image credit: ABC News)

The anthropological literature is replete with references to high status ‘Big Men’. However, you don’t need to unearth yellowing anthropology books to discover this association between size and status. A quick search of popular rap songs on YouTube provides you with lyrics like:

Yo, BMT, I’m on a big man ting
I ain’t going into clubs without my big hand ting
Got eleven on my finger, that’s a big man ring
Yeah I got a big bag, no bin man ting

In our post-industrial age of abundance, being overweight is increasingly linked with negative life outcomes— including diabetes and cancer. Indeed, obesity is now a bigger killer than hunger worldwide, and people who carry extra pounds find themselves subject to stigma.

Despite our newfound infatuation with thinness, Kevin and his colleagues wondered if this association between weight and social status still lingers in the modern world (beyond the UK rap community of course).

To explore this relationship, Kevin’s research team conducted a series of studies. Specifically, they wanted to see if overweight men are perceived as more persuasive than their scrawny counterparts.

As stated by the authors:

We focus specifically on persuasiveness since “big men” in pre-industrial societies did not have the power of an institution to enforce their standing in the group’s hierarchy; instead, “big men” needed to rely upon influence and persuasiveness to gain and maintain their status.

Heavyweight titans

As a preliminary step, Kevin’s team simply asked a small group of American university students to associate words with the phrases ‘heavyweight’ or ‘lightweight’.

Lo and behold, the students associated ‘heavyweight’ with strength, whereas ‘lightweight’ conjured negative connotations— such as being ‘weak’ or ‘unqualified’ (can you recall lightweight ever being intended as a compliment?).

The researchers commented that ‘heavyweight’ and ‘lightweight’ are terms commonly associated with boxing, and that heavyweight champions – the likes of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson—have garnered greater interest than lighter fighters (that is, boxers who are on their Big Man Ting).

Mike Tyson_ Trevor Berwick
‘Iron’ Mike Tyson becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history (image credit: Sky Sports)

When officially starting their research, Kevin’s team returned to their respective universities and asked students to evaluate their own leadership capabilities—including their ability to persuade others—and to disclose their height and weight (I know, how rude).

The researchers found that the students who rated themselves as more persuasive actually weighed more. Having dug into the data however, this relationship was largely explained by their height—rather than their weight per se. Therefore, these results weren’t entirely in line with their predictions.

Next, Kevin’s team sent out a survey to American undergraduate students. Specifically, the students were asked how persuasive they find people of different weights generally.

The most favourable answer received was that heavy people are more likely to be perceived as persuasive. In other words, the students stated they didn’t find overweight people more persuasive themselves— but believed that other people do.

In the later rounds of the research, Kevin’s team used drawings of men and women of different physiques. They asked American undergraduates to rate each of these figures on how persuasive, extraverted, funny and attractive they thought each person would be if they actually existed in real life.

The researchers found that the overweight male figures were rated as more persuasive—whilst the same wasn’t true for the female figures. In other words, there was no linear relationship between female figures’ weight and how persuasive students thought they would be.

They then repeated this drawing exercise with a broader American sample and people from Kenya. This was to make sure that these findings actually replicate, and are not just quirks of WEIRD people (that is, people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised and Democratic).

In both replications, they found that the overweight male figures were rated as more persuasive than the normal or underweight companions.

Fish out of water

Before delving any further, we first need to acknowledge the limitations of this study.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to realise that the researchers didn’t directly measure how persuasive individuals are among groups, but rather inferred influence through people’s perceptions. To be sure that this effect is real though, experiments would need to be conducted that directly measure the impact of people’s height and weight on their ability to influence (a tall order, I know).

Other scientific papers have recently been published that point in the same direction however, which lend further weight to these findings (no pun intended).

Future research should explore whether these associations are universal across cultures or dependent on context, as there are likely to be several exceptions.

As stated by the authors:

With further research, we may find out that the influence of weight on status and persuasiveness is context specific and culturally defined. Indeed, criticisms that a President of the United States would substantially under-report his own weight while perhaps over-estimating his own height are interesting in light of the studies we present.

Likewise, I suspect differences in body composition dramatically change how leaders are perceived (as the Body Mass Index doesn’t distinguish fat from muscle).

These points aside, how can we ultimately make sense of their studies’ results? Kevin and his colleagues interpret this phenomenon as an evolutionary mismatch.

To elaborate, evolutionary mismatches are physical and psychological traits that were selected for in our ancestral past, that are now frequently misaligned with the demands of the modern world (think of newly hatched sea turtles who are perilously drawn to streetlights).

Kevin and his colleagues argue that a proclivity for ‘Big Men’ constitutes an evolutionary mismatch, as there is no longer good reason to associate size with status. As we don’t have to hunt or worry about being raided by rival tribes anymore, the size of a leader is essentially irrelevant in the modern world of work.

The authors write:

As with studies of height in relation to non-manual work environments (e.g., being President of the United States), there is no essential relationship that should exist for weight. With the exception of certain athletic occupations such as sumo wrestlers or linemen on professional football teams, there is no clear rationale or consensus for why weight should be relevant for many contemporary occupations.

Implications

Clearly, this paper has several practical implications for the business world. As Kevin and his colleagues suggest, employers should be particularly sensitive to the various ways in which weight can cloud our judgement when it comes to hiring and promotion decisions. Businesses need to make a concerted effort to eliminate such biases during the selection process, and to focus on core competencies that underpin the role in question.

Perhaps most importantly, these findings have significant implications for democracies.

Against the backdrop of increasing political polarisation, prominent politicians are now placing greater emphasis on their size and fighting prowess (or rather, telling tales of their fighting history). Indeed, combative behaviour and threat displays have become unusually coarse among Western politicians— particularly in the United States.

Whether it’s ‘little Marco’ or ‘mini Mike’, President Trump continues to mock his political rivals based on their stature— which so far has proven to be a winning strategy. Beyond basic health considerations however, candidate’s size should be irrelevant when it comes to electing the President of the United States (note the irony of Michael Bloomberg’s latest campaign ads appearing to mock Trump based on his weight).

Across several spheres of society, being aware of these remnants of our primate lineage would likely benefit us. Armed with this knowledge, we can ultimately discard candidates’ size when selecting our leaders.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business