Here’s how a school day begins in my old Orthodox Jewish high school: Students pile off buses and mill around in a lobby, before a Rabbi emerges to usher them in to the chapel for morning prayer. Boys, yarmulkas on their heads and tzitzit swinging from their undershirts, file into pews on the right side of a divider. Girls in jeans skirts that hang past their knees and long-sleeved shirts file to the left.
Clacking sounds fill the darkened space as the boys pull their tfillin out of their hard cases, wrapping the leather straps in intricate patterns around their arms tight enough to leave marks. Services go fast, except on holidays, with the students and teachers muttering Hebrew and Aramaic prayers under their breaths. These prayers are more about repetition and intent than specific meaning. As they pray, most of the congregation bend at the hips over and over in little rocking motions. The most devoted among them swing their arms around with pained expressions on their faces, introducing a little z-axis rotation.
And then everyone goes to class.
It’s a ritual that looks strange to people who haven’t experienced it. And even years after I stopped praying regularly, I still feel just as strange and alienated stepping into a church, or Jewish prayer space where the prayers are done in English, or with the genders mixed together. It comes from a place deeper than any past or present religious belief, some hidden thing in my head whispering Who are these people? Don’t they know they’re doing it wrong? Scientists suspect that’s the whole point: a ritual’s function is to build in-group trust among people who perform the rituals, as well as suspicion of outsiders.
A new study published in Psychological Science from psychologists at the University of Toronto and Harvard University sought to put that suspicion to the test — and their experiments offer partial confirmation of the idea.
Here’s what they found, and how they found it.
Hand waves and hard cash
The researchers brought in large groups of people and had them play a simple game, guessing the number of dots on a screen. Then they divided the guessers into blue-team “overestimators” and red-team “underestimators” — though actual performance in the game had nothing to do with the selection. It was just a way to artificially created a division in the group.
Participants were then sent home with instructions to perform a little ritual (or, as it was described to them, an ancient cultural practice) every night for a week. Take five breaths, bow your head, close your eyes, and make a wiping motion away from your body. Then bring your arms to your side, face your arms downward, and bring your hands up and down… and on and on.
Separately, the teams were brought back to the lab. Then members of each group stood together and, one by one, performed the ritual. The goal here: Get participants used to the idea that they’re one group, with one set of rituals.
Red and blue team members then went off and played a game. You have $US10, they were told, Give your partner some of that, and they can triple it and send some back to you.
It’s a simple game, but useful for measuring trust between people. If you trusted your partner, you’d give them more — as much as the full $US10, with full faith that you’d get half of the final, tripled amount back. Don’t trust them to play fair and you won’t risk it, choosing instead to hoard your cash.
Researchers found a statistically significant difference between how people played when their partner was a team member and how they played with a member of the other team. Participants trusted their ritual-sharing team members about $US1 more than members of the other team.
In other versions of the experiment, with simpler rituals or no rituals at all, that effect disappeared. The ritual itself, more than the team affiliation, was building trust of team members and suspicion of outsiders.
What does this mean?
The researchers point out that the effect they found, while significant, is pretty small. More research is needed, they say, to determine whether trust and suspicion is really the strongest impact rituals have — and whether that effect is more powerful over long periods, or in other circumstances.
But the paper backs up with hard data something that anthropologists have long suspected: That rituals reshape our social worlds. They tell us, on some level, that the person who bows this way is a friend, and the person who doesn’t is an enemy.
The question that remains is just how powerful this effect really is.
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