Costly religious rituals appear to act as signals of loyalty and commitment. According to new research published in Evolution and Human Behavior, socioeconomic status can have an important influence on the form and intensity of ritual signaling. The study indicates that wealthier individuals are more likely to endure greater financial sacrifices during extreme collective rituals, while poorer individuals are more likely to endure greater physical pain.
“I have always been fascinated by ritual, because by definition it lacks direct utility, yet we all know that rituals serve important functions for human beings,” ,” said study author Dimitris Xygalatas (@Xygalatas), an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and author of The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-walking Rituals of the Anastenaria.
“Rituals help people find meaning, dispel their anxieties, and find connection. They also help people signal their social intentions and discern the intentions of others, and in doing so they are able to facilitate cooperation.”
“There is ample anthropological and psychological evidence for this, but there was an important caveat in this literature: models of ritual signaling typically focused on the signal while ignoring the signaler’s background,” Xygalatas explained. “Social hierarchies can exert significant pressures on individuals depending on the place in those hierarchies. While previous research treated this variation as noise, we were specifically interested in finding out how it works.”
The researchers have been conducting field work in Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, for more than a decade and have focused on the Kavadi Attam, a collective ritual performed during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. It is one of the most widely performed rituals in the world.
“During the festival, devotees undergo various physical and mental austerities, such as following a vegan diet, abstaining from sexual activities and alcohol, bathing in cold water, or sleeping on the floor,” the researchers explained. “The festival culminates on the full moon of the month of Thai, when participants carry heavy structures called kavadi (burdens) to the temple of Murugan on a procession that lasts several hours. This is why the ritual itself is also called Kavadi. Before embarking on this procession, pilgrims have their body pierced by numerous needles, skewers, and other metallic objects.”
For their new study, Xygalatas and his colleagues recruited 80 participants who took part in the kavadi ritual. On the day of the ritual, the researchers recorded the number of piercings for each participant and measured the size of their kavadi. They later administered surveys to each participant regarding their occupation, educational attainment, marital status, religiosity, and other factors.
Xygalatas and his colleagues found that socioeconomic status was positively associated with kavadi size. In other words, wealthier participants tended to build larger kavadis for themselves.
“Our interviews showed that most people spend between 3,000 and 5,000 rupees in preparing their kavadi, but some of the more elaborate structures may cost up to 40,000 rupees. While for high earners such expensive kavadis may be a financial inconvenience, they are an impossibility for low-income individuals, for whom even the cheaper kavadis impose a substantial burden,” the researchers said.
Xygalatas and his team also found socioeconomic status was negatively associated with piercings and ritual frequently. That is, poorer participants tended to have more piercings and participated in the collective ritual more frequently. The researchers’ statistical model predicted around 27 piercings for men with the highest socioeconomic status compared to around 151 piercings for men with the lowest socioeconomic status.
“People everywhere strive to achieve similar things, and in that pursuit they adapt their strategies to their circumstances,” Xygalatas told PsyPost. “In the context of the Thaipusam kavadi, we found that members of the upper classes carried larger, more expensive offerings, converting their financial capital into social capital. Those who did not have that luxury used a different way to signal their devotion: by enduring more of the painful piercings and doing so more often, they purchased their status with their own blood, sweat, and tears.”
In previously published work, Xygalatas and his colleagues found evidence that experiencing pain during the ritual helped to strengthen communal bonds and promote a sense of belonging. The ritual was also associated with subjective improvements in health and psychological well-being. Those who engaged in a higher number of body piercings tended to experience the greatest improvements.
But the research has mostly focused on men, who engage in the most extreme ritual actions.
“One caveat in our study is that we examined ritual behaviors dominated by men, simply because those behaviors were easier to observe and quantify,” Xygalatas explained. “However, women signal their devotion just as much, albeit in different ways. In the context of this ritual, for instance, they may exhibit signs of trance during the procession. Future studies should look at the role of women in these kinds of rituals.”
“Although controlled studies are of obvious importance, certain behaviors can only be studied meaningfully in their natural contexts,” Xygalatas added. “Traditionally, academia has partitioned those two ways of inquiry: for example, most psychologists may never study behavior in real-life settings, and most anthropologists never get involved in experimental work. This is an outdated way of doing things. As researchers, we should use whatever tools are best suited for answering our questions, and this is also what we tried to do in this study.”
The study, “Social inequality and signaling in a costly ritual“, was authored by Dimitris Xygalatas, Vladimír Bahna, Eva Kundtova Klocova, Radek Kundt, Martin Lang, and John H. Shaver.