The Limited Power of Rituals | An Evolutionary Perspective

Rituals are important. We’re not always sure why they’re important–and if you’re anything like me–you may have spent a great deal of time questioning their necessity, their relevance and even their function. Even though you knew what had to be done and the steps that had to be taken, you were just not able to follow the ritual blindly.

Rituals were created in that moment we call ‘Once Upon a Time’. They are portrayed as time-honoured traditions. No one really knows exactly when they began, how they evolved or if we will continue this exact same ritual as we move into the future.

A ritual may even seem pointless, bizarre, unnecessary and even completely futile. But for those who perform and adhere to such rituals, it is an enactment of something truly vital, sacred and important. The ritual–and those who participate wholeheartedly in it–acquire tremendous transformative power.

Ritual is rooted deep in our evolutionary history. They have existed as long as humans roamed the earth. The science of ritual can help us to connect as well as celebrate a primordial part of who we are that stretches back into time.

Nevertheless, it is only when we understand the need and the necessity for ritual that we will be able to express its full potential to transform our lives.

Rituals exist in all cultures. They are easily and readily learned and transmitted. They are enacted by both the religious and the secular. These rituals are not unique to humans, either. They extend to other animals in the animal kingdom.

Elephants, for instance, have a profound and deep understanding of death. They bury deceased members of the group by scattering dirt on them and covering them with leaves and flowers. Elephants will even remain with an important member of their group for days; mourning the fact that they have lost a key member of the community. In the event that a matriarch passes away, elephants even return to visit the carcass and burial site frequently.

As we observe such behaviour in both humans and in our animal friends, a question naturally arises. Why would intelligent creatures waste time and energy on seemingly pointless activities? Wouldn’t we be better off if we spent more time finding straightforward, practical, feasible and implementable solutions to our problems?

But in asking those questions, one misses the point entirely. This is exactly the power of the ritual. It functions as a mental aid to allow those who participate in it to achieve a desirable internal outcome through obscure means. These behaviours and enactments have a benefit that can only be measured indirectly.

In Nature, it seems that the more arguably ‘intelligent’ the animal, the more ritualised they are. Theories on he origins of human cognition have even proposed that ritual and intelligence evolved side-by-side. Our rituals were powerful tools to coordinate thought and memory. They allowed a group of humans to function as a single organism. The performance of these collective ceremonies allowed people to set their everyday concerns aside and be transported–albeit temporarily–to a completely different state of being.


Rituals must always adhere to a rigid structure for them to be effective in creating group think. Participations in such collective ceremonies established the first social conventions and protocols for early humans. As they came together to enact these rituals and ceremonies, participants had ceased to be individuals and were transformed into a group. They became a community that shared the same rituals. These rituals, it could be said, created groupthink.

It could even be deduced that the desire that created the first large group may not have been the hunger for food and economic prosperity; but rather, the urge for closeness and community.

The ritualisation process, however, has its limits for it is often characterised by unwavering rigidity. It may well allow the community to be established, but it may not allow the individuals within the group to grow beyond a certain threshold.

The reason is complex. Rituals must always be performed the same way. They are choreographed precisely. It is the letter and the law–as opposed to the spirit–that truly matters in the enactment of a ritual. A second aspect of ritual is the repetitive nature of the ritual. This repetitive nature can lead to high levels of redundancy when such a ritual is no longer required.

While rituals were, are and will continue to be a natural response and coping mechanism for fear and anxiety; their effectiveness in dealing with everyday problems over the long-term remains obscured. Rituals are highly effective when they take the form of ceremonies that mark major life stages and changes. They become redundant when they are performed repetitively for we become desensitised to what the ritual is meant to achieve.

Rituals are a natural way to cope as we attempt to control the world around us. While we may intuitively expect that these rituals will have an effect, their efficacy is contingent on whether ‘a new state’ is created. While a repetitive ritual may create safety in some, it may create boredom and inertia in others.

It, seems, then, that while rituals are powerful; their effectiveness lay in their scarcity and not in their plentitude.


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