The Ritual Stance and the Precaution System: The role of goal-demotion and opacity in ritual and everyday actions

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Abstract: Rituals tend to be both causally opaque and goal-demoted, yet these two qualities are rarely dissociated in the literature. Here we manipulate both factors and demonstrate their unique influence on ritual cognition. In a 2 x 3 (Action-Type x Goal-Information) between subjects design 484 US adults viewed Causally Opaque (Ritual) or Causally Transparent (Ordinary) actions performed on identical objects. They were provided with no goal information, positive goal information (‘Blessing’) or negative goal information (‘Cursing’). Neither causal opacity nor goal information influenced perceptions of physical change/causation. In contrast, causal opacity increased attributions of ‘specialness’, whereas goal-information did not. Finally, goal-information interacted with action-type on measures of preference, such that ordinary actions are influenced by both ‘blessings’ and ‘curses’, but ritual actions are only influenced by ‘curses’. These findings are interpreted in light of the Ritual Stance, and the cognitive bases of the effects are described with reference to Boyer and Liénard’s Precaution theory of ritualized behavior. The combined value of these two theories is discussed, and extended to a causal model of developmental ritual ‘calibration’.