E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley’s “ritual form hypothesis” appeals to a cognitive mechanism—an “action representation system”—to explain (predict) patterns in human reasoning about three classes of religious ritual. Our attempt to test their theory’s predictions using a sample of traditional Chinese rituals, as described to us by contemporary practitioners/observers, led to three discoveries. First, “special patient” rituals strongly conformed to all theory predictions, thereby replicating findings from previous studies conducted in the United States and Singapore. Second, some “special agent” rituals contradicted theory predictions, replicating findings from the aforementioned United States study. Third, our study produced few special agent rituals and no special instrument rituals; we interpret this paucity of representation in two of three ritual classes in light of McCauley and Lawson’s notion of “ritual imbalance.” These combined findings partially support Lawson and McCauley’s theory and also illuminate how China’s unique religious history may have engendered an over-emphasis on special patient rituals.
- Ritual form hypothesis
- Ritual efficacy
- Chinese rituals
- Cognitive science of religion