Do Extreme Rituals Have Functional Benefits?

To show their devotion to Murugan, the Hindu God of War, devotees in South India and Sri Lanka (all males) are pierced with large hooks and then hung on a festival float, as if they were toys on a nightmarish baby mobile. It’s an amazing and horrifying display not unlike Christian devotees in the Philippines who are nailed to crosses.

But what are the effects of these practices on those who undergo them? Surprisingly, positive. In, Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices on Psychophysiological Well-Being, a group of anthropologists, biologists and religious studies scholars compared measures of physiological, psychological and social well being in a small group of devotees compared to a matched sample. The group performing the ritual had no long lasting health harms but did appear to benefit psychologically through feelings of euphoria and greater self-regard and socially through higher status.

Despite their potential risks, extreme rituals in many contexts are paradoxically associated with health and healing (Jilek 1982; Ward 1984). Our findings suggest that within those contexts, such rituals may indeed convey certain psychological benefits to their performers. Our physiological measurements show that the kavadi is very stressful and high in energetic demands (fig. 2C, 2D). But the ostensibly dangerous ordeal had no detectable persistent harmful effects on participants, who in fact showed signs of improvement in their perceived health and quality of life. We suggest that the effects of ritual participation on psychological well-being occur through two distinct but mutually compatible pathways: a bottom-up process triggered by neurological responses to the ordeal and a top-down process that relies on communicative elements of ritual performance (Hobson et al. 2017).

Specifically, the bottom-up pathway involves physical aspects of ritual performance related to emotional regulation. Ritual is a common behavioral response to stress (Lang et al. 2015; Sosis 2007), and anthropological evidence shows that in many cultures dysphoric rituals involving intense and prolonged exertion and/or altered states of consciousness are considered as efficient ways of dealing with various illnesses (Jilek 1982). In our study, those who suffered from chronic illnesses engaged in more painful forms of participation by enduring more piercings. Notably, higher levels of pain during the ritual were associated with improvements in self-assessed health post-ritual. Although the pain was relatively short-lived, there is evidence that the social and individual effects of participation can be long-lasting (Tewari et al. 2012; Whitehouse and Lanman 2014).

The sensory, physiological, and emotional hyperarousal involved in strenuous ordeals can produce feelings of euphoria and alleviation from pain and anxiety (Fischer et al. 2014; Xygalatas 2008), and there is evidence of a neurochemical basis for these effects via endocrine alterations in neurotransmitters such as endorphins (Boecker et al. 2008; Lang et al. 2017) or endocannabinoids (Fuss et al. 2015). These endocrine effects are amplified when performed collectively, as shown by studies of communal chanting, dancing, and other common aspects of ritual (Tarr et al. 2015). While it is uncertain how long-lasting these effects are, such euphoric experiences may become self-referential for future well-being assessment.

At the same time, a top-down pathway involves social-symbolic aspects of ritual. Cultural expectations and beliefs in the healing power of the ritual may act as a placebo (McClenon 1997), buffering stress-induced pressures on the immune system (Rabin 1999). In addition, social factors can interact with and amplify the low-level effects of physiological arousal (Konvalinka et al. 2011). Performed collectively, these rituals can provide additional comfort through forging communal bonds, providing a sense of community and belonging, and building social networks of support (Dunbar and Shultz 2010; Xygalatas et al. 2013). The Thaipusam is the most important collective event in the life of this community, and higher investments in this ritual are ostensibly perceived by other members as signs of allegiance to the group, consequently enhancing participants’ reputation (Watson-Jones and Legare 2016) and elevating their social status (Bulbulia 2004; Power 2017a). Multiple lines of research suggest that individuals are strongly motivated to engage in status-seeking efforts (Cheng, Tracy, and Henrich 2010; Willard and Legare 2017) and that there is a strong positive relationship between social rank and subjective well-being (Anderson et al. 2012; Barkow et al. 1975). Indeed, we found that individuals of lower socioeconomic status were more motivated to invest in the painful activities that can function as costly signals of commitment. Recent evidence from a field study in India shows that those who partake in these rituals indeed reap the cooperative benefits that result from increased status (Power 2017b).

In addition, the cost of participation can have important self-signaling functions. On the one hand, it can boost performers’ perceived fitness and self-esteem, which positively affects mental health (Barkow et al. 1975). On the other hand, through a process of effort justification, such costs can strengthen one’s attachment to the group and sense of belonging (Festinger 1962; Sosis 2003). This role of costly rituals in generating positive subjective states (Bastian et al. 2014b; Fischer et al. 2014; Wood 2016) and facilitating social bonding (Bastian, Jetten, and Ferris 2014a; Whitehouse and Lanman 2014) may offer insights into the functions of painful religious practices.

The mind has an amazing ability to turn what would be torture under some scenarios into something else.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.


But what are the effects of these practices on those who undergo them?

Alex,I think you meant to say psychological effects...

This is a metaphor for Trump obviously.

Everyone not pledging themselves to Bernie is in effect attaching themselves via metal hook to Trump, a false God.

The Libertarian Hand of Kochs strikes again.

Ignore this post and Bernie or Bust. Biden is Trump 2.0

Satire requires a much lighter touch, I deduct 5 internet points.

Surprisingly? Really? You are way to cloistered Tyler. This was a water's wet story.

How cloistered do you have to be not to read the byline?

Though your response is dead on.

LOL that took me a second to grok. My bad, didn't realized anybody else posted on here but Tyler.

Well, I guess Satan is great, then, if he makes people be pierced with large hooks and then be hung on festival floats.

a white california lowbrow tv actress
claims she can diagnose mental illness
In a african american voting demographic and a california congressional fuck wit taunts good guys with guns
can we get a ruling from the bias response unit?

I'm skeptical of the matching method. The two samples may be superficially similar but could differ in unobservable ways. Econometrically, this isn't convincing. The "treated" are not random; they volunteer, right?

There is no such a thing as a random sample. Ever. The other group also volunteered. What's your point?

Any differences between extreme rituals and extreme sports? Perceived fitness? Check. Perceived self-esteem? Check. Sense of belonging? Check. Reduces anxiety? Check.....this is interesting.

That was my first thought. Someone should compare what these people do with what mountain bikers do. You can't walk their trails, they are too steep. Lots of injuries. Same with back country skiers, rock climbers. Extreme danger, high levels of endurance and physical discomfort. Rarely solo, and when it is the level of recognized accomplishment increases.

Good post. I did that. Sure I got fit and strong but it was stressful. I hated the injuries (going down) and obsessing over times and heart rate (going up).

Ultra-marathoner trail runners. I have a friend who did a 100 miler; she was otherwise a pretty normal middle aged suburban mom.

There are longer ones done in adverse environments, like Death Valley.

It’s amazing what people will do for fun.

Wait, is this a different Kevin Lewis than the excellent one?

It's probably his second cousin, the self-recommending one.

Stories like this remind me once again how alike we all are, really.

Reminds me of hazing. Hazing does increase the social bond between those who participate and who don't end up seriously injured. But what does it do to those who *are* seriously injured, those who are compelled to participate, or those who rationally decide not to participate?

"a group of anthropologists, biologists and religious studies scholars compared measures of ..." Are we told how many members of this group took their results so seriously that they therefore suspended themselves from meat-hooks and so on?

So that's why people get tattoos.

I celebrated my dissertation defense with one of these (outside a Hindu context), and have done several since; I'd be happy to answer some questions if people had them. Traveling now, so responses will be sporadic, but asynchronous communication is still a thing.

Voluntarily getting pierced with large hooks, and hanging therefrom, is hardly confined to Eastern religious practices. There are fetishists who do it in the West. Does everyone here lead a sheltered life?

I would bet that there is at least one Reddit forum specializing in this, complete with photos, but I'm not about to do the research.

The West has become much too soft.

It is useful to periodically reconfirm what has been known forever.
(I'm not being sarcastic; in addition, the particulars of this case are worth pointing out).
Being a member of an exclusive group is status-boosting (if there is something basically admired about the focus of the group in the culture/society). Aversive entry procedures and/or shared experiences ensure that it will be exclusive.
("The few, the proud"....join the US Marines, be one of a small minority who can say they took a Jap-held island and survived).

What no one is mentioning is how this debases many ideas behind ADHD, learning disabilities and addictive behaviors. The lesson of the above story is that extreme pain or danger is no barrier to voluntarily engaging in something that is perceived by that person to be financially beneficial, enjoyable, socially acceptable or encouraged. This is human nature (whether genetic of learned). The end result should be that no one has the right to prevent me from doing something that affects only myself or that might harm others in the future. The latter would need a overwhelming majority of objective proof (95-100%) to support such a regulation, e.g., the fact that .00001% of all drunk drivers caused fatal accidents should not have been sufficient grounds to make drunk driving illegal. Stats from NIH and MADD. Or that .00000006% of young children were killed (per decade) by metal lawn darts should not have been enough evidence to make them illegal. This may sound like I'm drawing wrong conclusions. Maybe. But we now have a society where people must tie their child down in cars while they are taking them to be (sometimes) physically damaged in socially acceptable sporting events or adults must wear a helmet while riding to mountain climbing. The point is that many (if not most) things that people do shortens their lives and allowing ourselves to be punished for doing something that is currently thought to be detrimental erodes our liberties in society as well as the capabilities of that society.

I have seen this live many times during my childhood years in India (this and walking on burning coal); we know so little about the capabilities of human and non-human brains.

Wonderful illustrated information. I thank you about that. No doubt it will be very useful for my future projects. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject!

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