Developmental / Cultural / Experimental Psychologist


The cognitive role of ritual in cultural evolution.

British Academy / Leverhulme Small Research Grants. £9,800.00. SRG\170810

Humans are uniquely adapted to solve evolutionary problems via cultural and technological processes. We construct buildings, craft tools, prepare medicines, and form institutions. And yet, for many aeons all of human knowledge was stored exclusively in the minds of individuals, and learned via observation or pedagogy. Within our corpus of behavior we have rituals - actions which do not themselves causally solve problems, and which are often wasteful. I propose a series of hypotheses regarding the role rituals play in cultural evolution: rituals may benefit the memorability (and subsequent transmission) of important causal sequences, while themselves having no physical relationship with the intended outcome. To evaluate this I propose (I) a behavioral experiment; (II) a quantitative analysis of historical manuals, examining the prevalence of ritual actions; and (III) an expansive computer simulation. This research will inform our understanding of the evolution of human culture, and may have applications in modern institutional settings


Dr. Eva Reindl, University of St. Andrews (Part I)

Dr. Willis Munroe, University of British Columbia; Dr. Christopher Kavanagh, University of Oxford (Part II)

Dr. Yo Nakawake, University of Oxford / University of Kyushu (Part III)

Virtual Rituals: Virtual Reality and Imagistic Rituals

John Fell Fund (Oxford). £‎7,224.00. #0005600.

Rituals are a human universal and understanding the differences and commonalities of ritual events from around the world – from an experiential and phenomenological point of view - can help shed light on how rituals help to establish and promote social cohesion and co-operative groups. Nevertheless, the anthropological and psychological study of rituals is expensive, protracted, and is frequently contingent upon opportunistic timing. Moreover, the study of rituals in natural social contexts is difficult due to their highly dynamic and unpredictable nature, as well as the insularity of the groups involved. Finally, field work associated with rituals is rarely, if ever, amenable to experimental control. We propose a project in which the objective is to record high-fidelity 360 degree videos of two extreme high arousal community rituals (i.e., ‘Imagistic rituals’) and two low arousal rituals (i.e., ‘doctrinal rituals’). Thereafter, using Virtual Reality hardware (i.e., Oculus Rift) we will empirically investigate, with careful control and calibration, the physiological, emotional, and cognitive responses participants have while ‘participating’ in [virtual] rituals.

The cataloguing of ‘rituals’ in this high-fidelity virtual environment allows for a level of scholarship and investigation that is not practical in the lab (in a pragmatic and ethical sense). In particular, this methodology will facilitate the investigation of ritual in a manner that is financially and ethically tractable, and allow for investigations with a large number of [experimentally] naïve participants, as well as highly-calibrated measurements which would be impossible in the field (i.e., Physiological such as Heart Rate, Hormone Levels, Gaze Tracking, and potentially even EEG). At present, no method provides the conjunction of these features with stimuli so closely approximately the real world.

In so doing we hope to demonstrate the feasibility of a larger project that collects and catalogues a variety of rituals using virtual reality technology, which will be used for empirical investigation, and thereafter made freely accessible to the scientific community via an Oxford based online repository.


Prof. Harvey Whitehouse, University of Oxford

Dr. Christopher Kavanagh, University of Oxford

Barbara Muzzolini, Turin University