Although the group rituals we share with our families, friends, and religious groups can help us bond with one another and make us feel included, these comforting activities may also have a social downside: A new study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that engaging in rituals may cause us to put less trust in people who don’t share the same practices.
“Rituals are a clear, honest, outward-directed signal that a person is part of, and loyal to, a particular group,” said psychological scientist and graduate student Nicholas Hobson of the University of Toronto, lead author of the study.
“But now we see evidence that it might also be a clear signal that a person is an outsider. Could it be the case that rituals are responsible for fueling the various forms of outgroup derogation, distrust, and hostility seen across the world? More work is certainly needed to flesh this out, but our work brings the question to the fore.”
Rituals have long been studied by anthropologists, but the researchers in this study specifically wanted to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying these traditions and practices.
First, however, they had to figure out how to isolate the processes involved in shared rituals while excluding any cultural, historical, and social meanings that typically come attached. Thus, they decided to create novel rituals that would be carried out by newly formed groups.
In the first experiment, the researchers asked 100 college students to estimate the number of dots contained in a series of images. Then, some of the students received instructions to learn and memorize a set of actions over the course of the following week — the actions included raising the hand above the head and in front of the body, bowing the head, and opening and closing the eyes. The researchers sent the students frequent reminders to encourage compliance with these instructions.
At the end of the week, the students returned to the lab to complete a group-based task. Some participants were told they had been grouped together as the “red” team because they had all underestimated the number of dots in the images presented earlier in the week, while those on the “blue” team had supposedly overestimated the number of dots. In reality, the students were randomly assigned to groups.
The students then spent two minutes performing the action sequence one last time in a staggered fashion, so that the group performed the same actions but not quite simultaneously. Then, each group member sat down at a computer and played two rounds of a trust game with either another member of their “red” group or a member of the other “blue” group.
During each round, students began with $10 and could choose to send any amount, from zero dollars to $10, to the other player. Whatever amount they sent would be tripled and the other player could then send money back. In a perfectly cooperative game, the participant would send $10, which would be tripled to $30, and the other player would then split the proceeds and send $15 back.
The researchers wanted to know: Would participants’ trust depend on whether the other player had been in their group and shared the same ritual?
The findings supported the researchers’ hypothesis: Sharing a ritual influenced trust. Participants who had gone through the ritual experience entrusted less money to the other player if she was part of the other “blue” team than if she had been on the same “red” team. Participants in the comparison condition, who had not learned a ritual, sent similar amounts of money to the other player regardless of what team she was on.
Therefore, knowing that they either did or did not share an arbitrary ritual with the other player was sufficient to bias the amount of trust participants placed in that player.
In addition, two additional experiments revealed that the amount of effort and time put into the ritual do matter. The researchers found that rituals that were simple or performed only once did not lead participants to show bias against members of the other group.
Brain activity data collected in a fourth experiment offer preliminary evidence that rituals may involve early, automatic processes associated with monitoring others’ behavior. These processes may help to explain why group membership and affiliation are such influential social cues.
“The take-home message is that even minimal rituals can lead to bias against people from other groups,” said Hobson. “We found that a person who engages in an ad-hoc ritual over the course of a week will entrust more of their own money to a group member who went through the same ritual experience, and also entrust less money to someone who had a slightly different ritual experience.”