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Painful and Extreme Rituals Enhance Social Cohesion
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Image credit: "Thaipusam Singapore 2011 08" by Nestor's Blurrylife/Flickr

Human beings in cultures across the world engage in extreme rituals that involve self-mutilation or enduring other types of suffering. Why do these extreme rituals — in which people willingly put themselves through harm — continue to persist? A new study published online in Psychological Science suggests that such rituals promote social cohesion and charity. Anthropologists long suspected that extreme rituals enhanced prosocial behaviors, but that hypothesis lacked direct evidence — until now.

“We offer the first natural demonstration that suffering predicts prosociality by capitalizing on intense, real-world stimuli that would be hard to manipulate in the laboratory,” Dimitris Xygalatas of Aarhus University and his colleagues wrote in the study.

For their research, Xygalatas and his colleagues examined two rituals associated with the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The first ritual involved singing and collective prayer. The second ritual, called the Kavadi, was a bit more extreme. To symbolize debt bondage in the Kavadi, the performers often insert lances, hooks, skewers and other objects into their body. The study of 86 males in Mauritius found both observers and performers of the Kavadi were more charitable than those who only participated in the collective prayers. The researchers also found that higher levels of pain were positively associated with larger donations and a more inclusive self-identity. The researchers controlled the potentially confounding factors of age, religiosity, and temple attendance.

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