Tag: Physiology

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.

Employee Health from an Evolutionary Perspective

An evolutionary perspective provides a powerful way of thinking about employees’ health.

What I’ve outlined below is Zhen Zhang and Michael Zyphur’s chapter on employee health and physiological functioning, in Stephen Colarelli and Richard Arvey’s volume The Biological Foundations of Organizational BehaviorThe chapter provides a wealth of information regarding employee health and physiology, and I’ll focus mainly on the practical applications rather than its theoretical contributions.

Zhang and Zyphur’s thesis is essentially this: modern working environments presents novel stressors and social difficulties for which humans have not yet adapted to. The authors propose that these challenges present an evolutionary mismatch, and suggest ways of aligning modern working conditions with that of our ancestral past.

Of course, the forces of technology have been unleashed and there’s no going back to the stone age, and nor would we want to. However, aspects of our humanity are arguably being ignored in modern organisations, and the authors propose some reasonable actions which can help improve employees’ health and physiological functioning.

Evolutionary Psychology and Employees in Modern Organisations

The authors argue that the majority of human psychological mechanisms are adaptations to Pleistocene environments. A classic example of our ancient psychological quirks outlined is that most people are more fearful of seeing snakes and spiders than having a loaded gun pointed at them, despite the fact that guns kill significantly more humans annually than snakes and spiders combined. This is because snakes and spiders were a constant threat to our ancestors during the Pleistocene, whereas guns are a recent invention and thus a novel threat.

Zhang and Zyphur argue that the mismatch between the environments in which we evolved and those in which we find ourselves in create ‘substantial difficulties’ at work. Specified are many aspects of the modern working environment that were absent in our ancestral past, including: a stricter organisational hierarchy, larger workloads, relative lack of social support, reduced physical activity, lack of sunshine in office and factory settings, sleep deprivation due to shift work, and work-to-family conflicts.

Evolutionary psychological research suggests that we humans evolved in the context of small tightly knit groups, with strong ties and support mechanisms- as do indigenous cultures across the world. The authors note that employees often work in small groups like our ancestors did. However, large modern organisations are populated by people who do not know each other personally, which presents challenges for cooperation and collaboration in light of our evolutionary drives to wrangle over status.

Social Status

Although rising income inequality makes pronounced status differentials appear largely inevitable, one must appreciate that we humans are primarily an egalitarian primate. The authors cite anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s book The Hierarchy in the Forest, which documents hunter-gathers having largely flat structures in their social lives, and that their levels of egalitarianism are far greater than that of modern organisations. I would throw in  here that it is the process of cultural group selection which has enabled greater status differentials within and between groups.

The authors argue that the mismatch between small egalitarian groups and that of large hierarchical organisations creates status hierarchies that are difficult to comprehend, and are a source of chronic stress. Further, Zhang and Zyphur argue that these large differences in status induce desires for success that lead people to “place unreasonable demands on their time and mental energy in order to ‘get ahead’, sacrificing their mental and physiological health in the name of social status and material wealth.” (p. 141).

Surprisingly, the authors did not cite the ‘Whitehall studies’. The Whitehall studies was a series of longitudinal research which commenced in the 1960s, that investigated the health of over 17,530 male UK civil servants. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the studies demonstrated that the civil servants with the highest status jobs actually were the least stressed, and subsequently the healthiest employees.

Men in the lowest  grade were 3.6 times more likely to die from heart disease than the highest grade. However, the lower grades were associated with various risk factors, such as obesity, smoking, and decreased leisure time. Statistically holding these risk factors constant, the lowest grade were still twice as likely to die from heart disease than the highest grade.

20 years later, the ‘Whitehall studies II’ corroborated these findings. The researchers concluded the Whitehall Studies II stating; “Healthy behaviours should be encouraged across the whole of society; more attention should be paid to the social environments, job design, and the consequences of income inequality.”

Workload

Another big development is the sheer volume of work that is characteristic of modern working life.

Anthropologists estimate that in earlier periods of human evolution, people most likely worked up to 8 hours per week. However we now work between 40-80 per week, which is an order of magnitude greater. In order to survive in industrial society, we have to work much harder than our great ancestors did.

The authors state that this rapid shift in workload has resulted in our physiological systems failing to adapt to the new environment, resulting in chronic stress, and a deterioration of social relationships (which buffer the adverse impacts of stress). Zhang and Zyphur state that the increased workload can help explain the prevalence of stress-related physiological maladies we are experiencing today, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

From an evolutionary perspective, the authors suggest that milder forms of physiological responses can be considered as evolved defence mechanisms that alert people and help them cope with threats and adversities. These responses prompt adaptive behaviours when they are within normal ranges. However, sharp changes in the work environment can lead to excessive stress and malfunctioning in employee physiology. Thus, physiological systems which evolved for life in hunter-gather times can be maladaptive in modern contexts.

An Organising Framework

Zhang and Zyphur provide a theoretical framework based on their review of occupational health psychology:

IMG_0544
An organising framework for examining employee functioning at work (p. 144)

Notice how the authors reconcile traditional constructs within the field organisational psychology, such as organisational support and job stress, with that of physiology. Zhang and Zyphur note that traditional organisational behaviour research focuses mainly on cognitive, affective and behavioural approaches to examine employees’ health and the associated organisational outcomes, and that physiological measures  (e.g. elevated blood pressure as an indicator of job strain) have played only a peripheral role.

A key point raised is that measuring physiological functioning is not only important for employees’ well-being, but also for the bottom line. For example, the authors cite a study which found that higher levels of salivary cortisol can explain 25% of the variance in subsequent healthcare costs for organisations. Of course for practising organisational psychologists, one can argue that physiological measures are problematic in regards to cost, time, and data disclosure.

Practical Implications 

Within the chapter, Zhang and Zyphur provide some recommendations for promoting a healthy work environment, including job redesign, increasing fairness, and providing adequate support.

The authors believe that job redesign, which addresses the root cause of job stress, can help alleviate the negative impact of high job demands. To ‘increase justice’, Zhang and Zyphur suggest that interpersonal skills should be incorporated into management training. Also, Zhang and Zyphur argue that organisational support and resources should be readily available for employees, including employee assistance programmes and counselling services in the workplace.

One way to contract the adverse impacts of larger status differentials and the impersonal nature of modern organisations on health is to increase the social support employees receive. For example, a study cited found that employees who recieved high social support from  their coworkers had lower resting heart rates during and after work. The authors argue that these findings confirm that social support can reduce the mismatch between the modern work environment and that of our ancestors.

For stakeholders in a position to evaluate executive remuneration, appreciate the detrimental impact high income inequality can have on employee health and group functioning.

As stated by Zhang and Zyphur; “More practically, by understanding human evolution and the environments for which we have evolved,  it is possible to design interventions to reduce stress by creating a better match between old and modern environments. For example, this could be done at work by creating socially supportive cultures, reducing social and other uncertainties, increasing natural lighting, and minimizing physical space constraints, as well as reducing workloads in employees.” (p. 142).

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business 

Click here to by a copy of The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior

References & Recommended Reading

Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

The Economist (2008) Social Status and Health: Misery Index. Available here

Evans, O., & Steptoe, A. (2001). Social support at work, heart rate, and cortisol: a self-monitoring study. Journal of occupational health psychology,6(4), 361.

Ganster, D. C., Fox, M. L., & Dwyer, D. J. (2001). Explaining employees’ health care costs: a prospective examination of stressful job demands, personal control, and physiological reactivity. Journal of Applied Psychology,86(5), 954.

Marmot, M. G., Stansfeld, S., Patel, C., North, F., Head, J., White, I., … & Smith, G. D. (1991). Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. The Lancet, 337(8754), 1387-1393.

Marmot, M. G., Rose, G., Shipley, M., & Hamilton, P. J. (1978). Employment grade and coronary heart disease in British civil servants. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 32(4), 244-249.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works. NY: Norton.

Suttie, J. (2016) Why Your Office Needs More Nature, The Greater Good Science Center. Available here

Zhang, Z. & Zyphur, M.J. (2015) Physiological Functioning and Employee Health in Organizations; In Colarelli , S. & Arvery, D. (Eds) The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior. Chicago University Press.