Evidence from the Supernatural: Evaluating Ritual Efficacy
Rituals pose a cognitive paradox: although widely used to treat problems, they are cultural conventions and lack causal explanations for their effects. How do people evaluate the efficacy of rituals in the absence of causal information? To address this question, I have examined the kinds of information that influence perceptions of ritual efficacy experimentally (Legare & Souza, 2012; 2013). I conducted three studies (N = 162) in Brazil, a cultural context in which rituals called simpatias are used to treat a great variety of problems ranging from asthma to infidelity. Using ecologically-valid content, I designed experimental simpatias to manipulate the kinds of information that influence perceptions of efficacy (e.g., repetition, number of procedural steps). The results provide evidence that information reflecting intuitive causal principles affects how people evaluate ritual efficacy. I propose that the structure of ritual is the product of an evolved cognitive system of intuitive causality.