Saturday, September 28, 2013

Matt J. Rossano's "Mortal Rituals"

Matt Rossano is head of the Psychology Department at Southeastern Louisiana University and the author of Evolutionary Psychology: The Science of Human Behavior and Evolution and Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Mortal Rituals describes a series of studies in developmental psychology demonstrating that infants follow rules in their interactions with caregivers and they expect caregivers to follow those rules as well. For example, infants follow a simple “turn-taking” rule when interacting with mom. So mom makes a happy face at baby, then pauses and waits as baby makes a happy face in return. Then baby pauses while mom says something like “heeeellooohh.” Then mom pauses and waits as baby replies with “oooouuuuuu.” What these studies show is that baby gets upset if mom fails to wait and give baby his or her turn in the exchange which indicates that very early on baby forms rules about how these exchanges are “suppose” to go.

At first blush, this all seems quite distant from the harrowing story of the Andes’ crash survivors. But there is a deeply-rooted human connection here. Rule-following is one of the critical features of ritual. A well-done ritual choreographs every move, and it is through predictable, precisely-executed gestures that ritual achieves the power to inspire, strengthen, and emotionally elevate us. One reason why ritual possesses such power is that we are conditioned to be sensitive to its qualities very early in life. Our earliest social interactions – those between infants and caregivers – are ritualized affairs.

Having been violently and shocking severed from all the trappings of civilization, the Andes’ survivors clung to ritual as a tether to their very humanity. Nightly, as the dark and cold descended upon them, they would gather in the crumpled, putrid hulk of the plane’s fuselage – their mountain home. As they grew weary and ready to sleep, nineteen-year-old Carlitos Paez would pull out his prayer beads and lead them in reciting the rosary. Despite the wretchedness of their conditions and the gruesomeness of their acts (however necessary for survival), their rituals continually reminded them that they were still what had always been – just Catholic school boys.
Learn more about Mortal Rituals at the Columbia University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

--Marshal Zeringue