Human Nature

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 115–125 | Cite as

How Do Rituals Affect Cooperation?

An Experimental Field Study Comparing Nine Ritual Types
  • Ronald Fischer
  • Rohan Callander
  • Paul Reddish
  • Joseph BulbuliaEmail author


Collective rituals have long puzzled anthropologists, yet little is known about how rituals affect participants. Our study investigated the effects of nine naturally occurring rituals on prosociality. We operationalized prosociality as (1) attitudes about fellow ritual participants and (2) decisions in a public goods game. The nine rituals varied in levels of synchrony and levels of sacred attribution. We found that rituals with synchronous body movements were more likely to enhance prosocial attitudes. We also found that rituals judged to be sacred were associated with the largest contributions in the public goods game. Path analysis favored a model in which sacred values mediate the effects of synchronous movements on prosocial behaviors. Our analysis offers the first quantitative evidence for the long-standing anthropological conjecture that rituals orchestrate body motions and sacred values to support prosociality. Our analysis, moreover, adds precision to this old conjecture with evidence of a specific mechanism: ritual synchrony increases perceptions of oneness with others, which increases sacred values to intensify prosocial behaviors.


Cooperation Entitativity Evolution Religion Ritual Sacred values 



We are grateful to Diana Boer for her helpful comments. We are grateful to the editor of Human Nature, Jane Lancaster, and to four anonymous referees for their helpful comments and encouragement. For financial support, we are grateful to a Victoria University URF Grant 8-3046-108855.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald Fischer
    • 1
  • Rohan Callander
    • 1
  • Paul Reddish
    • 2
  • Joseph Bulbulia
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.School of PsychologyVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand
  2. 2.LEVYNA: Laboratory for Experimental Research of ReligionMasaryk UniversityBrnoCzech Republic
  3. 3.Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand

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