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Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens

Pascal Boyer

3. Why ritualized behavior?

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Introductory Note

1Why do people perform rituals? Over the world and however far we can go in the past, human groups seem to engage in what we would recognize as, well, ‘rituals’ of some kind or other, even though we may be very unclear about what that term is supposed to convey. Pierre Liénard nudged me to join forces and re-open that question, which used to be central in classical anthropology, together with the additional query, what is the connection (if any) between the collective ceremonies described by anthropologists or historians, and the compulsive behaviors of obsessive patients?

2So, why perform rituals? The question of why this (vaguely defined) way of behaving is universal was more often avoided than addressed in anthropology, as quite a few anthropologists have pointed out (Bloch, 1974; Rappaport, 1999). We were told that collective rituals expressed a world-view, or reflected social values or made manifest a social order etc. All such statements raise more questions than they solve. Why would you need a ritual to do any of these things?

3As for the striking similarities between collective ceremonies and the individual, often pathological rituals observed in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—the article provides a detailed account of these similarities—the question had been largely abandoned after Sigmund Freud’s desultory observation (1948) that religious ritual could be described as collective obsessiveness and obsessiveness as a kind of individual religion… which did not help much.

4Our work diverged from previous models and theories of rituals in three distinct ways.

5First, Liénard and I agreed that we should try to describe ritualization rather than rituals. That is not a pedantic distinction. Rituals are the outcome—the collective or private ceremonies found in most human cultures, the routines of individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as the repetitive behaviors of many children. Ritualization is the combination of underlying processes that creates all this, making it natural or even compelling individuals to engage in these behaviors. A great deal of confusion in anthropology stems from a focus on the result, on ‘rituals’, rather than on the processes that cause them. Anthropologists have for instance wasted much time trying to define the term ritual, to demarcate what is and what is not a ritual, and so forth. This is a bit like spending one’s time trying to define what counts as a ‘fire’ and what does not, rather than describing the physics and chemistry of combustion—for a more recent critique of that unfortunate tendency, see Boyer & Liénard (2020).

6Second, Liénard suggested that we should build our account on the basis of the ‘security motivation’ model proposed by Szetchman & Woody (2004) to account for the neuro-physiology of obsessive-compulsive disorders. Together with previous evolutionary models by Abed & de Pauw (1998), as well as Fiske & Haslam (1997), this neurophysiological model provided a key to understanding how ordinary actions can become ritualized. Our model is very much a modified version of the Szechtman & Woody account, with a few important twists, as discussed in the paper. (I should point out that the neuro-physiology in the paper is of course partly out of date, although the main points remain valid).

7Third, Freud was obviously wrong—most anthropologists would agree with that—but it matters to understand exactly why. Consider people performing a collective ritual, e.g., sacrificing a pig to the ancestors as a way to placate them and ward off witches and devils. The reason why people engage in such behaviors is that they receive messages from other people, their elders for instance, that one should engage in this course of action. The content of these messages is the reason why the ritual actions are reiterated. As we describe in the paper, people will follow a ritual recipe if it is (even marginally) more relevant than alternatives available in their social environment. In our account, people receive a description of the cultural ceremonies that is relevant because it activates, however faintly, cognitive systems that evolved to protect us against potential hazards like contagion and predators. That is sufficient. This is a matter of cultural selection and reconstruction—in the same way as people select some stories among the many stories they hear, and store and reconstruct them, whilst abandoning other variants or other stories, a process of cultural ‘epidemiology’ described in detail by Dan Sperber (1996) and Sperber & Hirschfeld (2004).

8The re-iteration and performance of such rituals does not, in any way, require that the participants suffered from any special anxieties, that rituals could allay mental states, or any other such functionalist assumptions. Liénard made this even clearer in our subsequent paper, focused on cultural rituals and their dynamics (Liénard & Boyer, 2006). Strikingly, that unfounded assumption (that people participate in collective rituals to assuage their anxieties) is so entrenched, that some of the commentators on the original article took it for granted that we must be defending that explanation, despite our (as we saw it) clear assurances to the contrary.



Abed, R. T., & de Pauw, K. W. (1998). An evolutionary hypothesis for obsessive compulsive disorder: a psychological immune system? Behavioural Neurology, 11, 245–250.

Bloch, M. (1974). Symbols, song, dance, and features of articulation: Is religion an extreme form of traditional authority? European Journal of Sociology, 15, 55–81.

Boyer, P., & Liénard, P. (2020). Ingredients of ‘rituals’ and their cognitive underpinnings. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 375 (1805), 20190439.

Fiske, A. P., & Haslam, N. (1997). Is obsessive-compulsive disorder a pathology of the human disposition to perform socially meaningful rituals? Evidence of similar content. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 185, 211–222.

Freud, S. (1948). Zwangsbehandlungen und Religionsübungen. In A. Freud et al. (Eds.), Gesammelte Werke von Sigmund Freud, chronologisch geordnet (VII, pp. 107–116). London: Imago Publishing.

Liénard, P., & Boyer, P. (2006). Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior. American Anthropologist, 108, 814–827.

Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sperber, D., & Hirschfeld, L.A. (2004). The Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Stability and Diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 40–46.

Szechtman, H., & Woody, E. (2004). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder as a Disturbance of Security Motivation. Psychological Review, 111, 111–127.


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