With forest in the background, shirtless people with "USA" painted in red on their chests wear a mix of jean and khaki bottoms. Each person holds a long bamboo stick in their left hand, balancing it on their left shoulder. The group steps forward in unison.

What Cargo Cult Rituals Reveal About Human Nature

In Melanesia, Indigenous communities developed elaborate rituals to bring themselves material wealth starting in the late 19th century. These practices reveal a profoundly important and universal social technology.
Multicolored kites fly in a blue sky above a green field near a body of water.

Five New Year’s Rituals of Renewal

An anthropologist explores a range of cultural celebrations around the world to mark the new year. Spoiler alert: They don’t all fall on January 1.
coronavirus rituals

Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals

An anthropologist illuminates how both old and new rituals can provide a sense of comfort during times of uncertainty.
In Mauritius, some devotees carry a heavy burden attached to them through hundreds of needles; others pull a chariot behind them through hooks pierced in their backs.

How Rituals of Pain Help Heal

A new study reveals how ceremonies involving physical suffering can be invaluable tools for building resilience and coping skills.

How Hearts Align in a Muslim Ritual

An important Sufi ritual brings participants together in a shared experience of trance and movement that actually synchronizes their heartbeats.
religious people moral - While religious practices might remind participants of specific moral codes, they may not influence a follower’s overall moral behavior.

Are Religious People More Moral?

Cultures around the world share the belief that atheists lack morality. The evidence, however, tells a different story.
A man in Mauritius gets skewered through his cheeks during an ancient Hindu ceremony. The terror in his eyes will soon give way to more positive feelings. Painful rituals like piercing, flagellation, and fire-walking can release endorphins (natural opioids) in the brain and produce a state of euphoria. In a study of a ritual involving prolonged suffering, my colleagues and I showed that those who went through the most intense ordeals felt less tired and more euphoric after the event than onlookers who did not participate. These rituals can provide a sense of catharsis and redemption.

The Perennial Power of Ritual

Rituals soothe, excite, and unite people throughout the world. But how exactly do they work, and what makes them so meaningful?