Ritual, Community, and Conflict

Some of the greatest atrocities have been caused by groups defending or advancing their political aspirations and sacred values. In order to comprehend and address the wanton violence of war, terrorism and genocide, it is necessary to understand the forces that bind and drive human groups. This five-year programme of research investigates one of the most powerful mechanisms by which groups may be formed, inspired, and coordinated: ritual.

This project examines the role of ritual in child development, in social behaviour, and in the evolution of political systems:

  • Studying how children learn the rituals of their communities will shed light on the various ways in which rituals promote social cohesion within the group and distrust of groups with different ritual traditions
  • Qualitative field research, surveys, and controlled psychological experiments will be conducted in a number of troubled regions (including the Middle East and North Africa) to investigate the role of ritual in group bonding and inter-group competition
  • New databases will be constructed to explore the relationship between ritual, resource extraction patterns, and group structure and scale over the millennia

This work is being undertaken through the collaboration of international teams of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, archaeologists, and evolutionary theorists. The project is funded by an ESRC Large Grant (£3.2m).

If asked to list the defining features of being human, you’d probably cite our formidable linguistic prowess, our finely tuned moral sense and our unrivalled capacity for creative invention as crucial elements. All have no doubt played a part in making us the globally dominant species we are, enabling us to share ideas, form close-knit moral communities and devise ways to eke out an existence in an unprecedented variety of environments, from the scorching heat of the desert to the freezing winds of arctic tundra.

But perhaps an equally important factor in the success of our species has been our capacity for blind imitation. This ability to copy other people, rather than our braininess, underlies the very possibility of complex culture, in which the knowledge, innovations and insights of one generation are transmitted down the line.

Cultural imitation is a universal human trait. Every person on the planet (barring those with certain cognitive deficits) is biologically equipped to pick up the knowledge and skills nurtured by any culture that has existed: if a Palaeolithic infant could to be transported in a time machine to the present, she would no doubt develop much like any other normal child, learning to read and write and to use all the advanced technologies that wealthy people of the twenty-first century have at their disposal.

But we’re not smart enough to invent complex culture in a single generation: if all the accumulated knowledge of our species were to be annihilated overnight, it would take another 100,000 years to accomplish anything like our present levels of scientific and technological accomplishment (if indeed we would recover our lost riches at all). Despite our undoubted capacities for sophisticated reasoning, creative invention, and technological innovation, humans remain a deeply imitative species, and for most of the human past this is mainly how we preserved the cultural wisdom of the ages.

As quintessentially cultural creatures, we imitate all sorts of behaviours. Some of these are technical skills that help us get by in the world. For the Inuit, this might be how to build a kayak or fashion snow boots; for your average Westerner, it might be how to drive a car or use a smartphone. With technical skills, there’s a clear outcome in mind, and we can see how certain physical actions can ensure that we achieve these goals — when we see someone successfully doing what we want to do, it makes sense to copy them.

But in addition to technical skills, we also imitate behaviours where the link between what we do and some hoped-for outcome is much less clear — rituals being a prime example. People engage in ritual activities for all sorts of reasons: to commune with the divine, to mark changes in status, to bury the dead, and sometimes for no reason at all that anybody can remember. But the means by which rituals are supposed to achieve their goals (if any) are typically opaque, in that the relationship between the conventional rules for performing the ritual, and its end goal (if it has one), lies beyond the kind of causal explanation that underlies technical skills. Indeed, in many cases it’s assumed that such an explanation is not only unavailable, but not even possible in principle: you simply have to do things this way, and that’s that.

As such, rituals are defined less by the content of the observable behaviour itself, but by the way we, as observers and participants, understand the action —­ that is, by the interpretative stance we adopt towards it. As an Englishman I know that an outreached hand invites me to shake it but I do not expect my capacities for causal reasoning to deliver an explanation for this peculiar convention; I understand this behaviour from a ritual stance. On the other hand, the same outstretched hand as I hang on for dear life to a cliff top is immediately recognizable as a means by which I may be hauled to safety; here, I would be adopting an instrumental stance. Being unable to tell the difference, to fail to adopt the right stance, could quite literally be a matter of life and death.

The puzzle is why we adopt a ritual stance at all, and why we routinely imitate behaviours for which there is no causal or instrumental rationale. The Ritual, Community, and Conflict project is trying to find out why.

The first objective of our project, led by Cristine Legare and her lab (University of Texas at Austin), is to understand how young children learn the difference between ritual and instrumental stances on behaviour, as well as how social cues influence the salience of the two stances and affect patterns of social learning by imitation. In our initial experiments we’ve shown that children copy causally opaque behaviour more rigidly, with less inclination to innovate, when the ritual stance is more salient, and we’re currently exploring the effects of ostracism threat, conformism bias, and other social cues on ritual learning.

Since rituals are typically unintelligible in terms of mechanistic causation, they spawn a potentially infinite universe of behavioural diversity. Human populations living side by side may have much in common, adopting the same basic techniques of production, using similar tools, exploiting similar natural resources and foodstuffs, living in similar kinds of houses, and so on. Indeed, at the level of practical affairs and day-to-day life there may be little to tell them apart ­— people cannot distinguish themselves from their neighbours by continually inventing new ways of tackling the technical challenges of life.

Rituals are a different story. Arbitrary conventions for how to achieve certain goals (placating the gods, ensuring an adequate crop and so on) act as admirable group markers partly because they are of little or no use to those outside the group. Indeed the same may be said of individual identity markers.

Rituals, however, not only demarcate people; they also bind them together. Our project’s second objective, led by Jon Lanman (Queen’s University Belfast) and Ryan McKay (Royal Holloway), is to investigate the psychological mechanisms by which rituals promote social cohesion. One of our current hypotheses concerns the relationship between ritual meaning and social identity. The fact that the ritual actions are not in principle intelligible in mechanistic terms means that we can endow them with many possible functions and meanings. But if interpreters do not know very much about what others are privately thinking, the ‘false consensus bias’ (a well-documented phenomenon in social psychology) encourages the impression, however illusory, that what is personally meaningful and motivating about the experience of joining in is shared by other participants.

This insight, reinforced by my own observations of ritual groups in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, led to further research on ‘rites of terror’ and the so-called ‘imagistic’ mode of religiosity, in which important rituals are infrequent and highly emotionally arousing. Imagistic practices generate powerful bonds between participants based on shared experiences of ritual ordeals in small, face-to-face communities. (This contrasts with the ‘doctrinal mode’ of religiosity, which is characterised by frequent but relatively tame rituals that help foster larger, anonymous but expandable communities with higher levels of orthodoxy and dynamic leadership.)

We’re now beginning to connect these ideas with a new branch of research in social psychology that examines the nature and consequences of ‘identity fusion’. One of the world’s leading experts on this topic, Bill Swann (University of Texas at Austin), is helping us to develop novel lines of investigation into the role of ritual in fusing groups of people together into cooperative units. Together with Jonathan Jong (Oxford) and the rest of the team we are exploring these issues experimentally in the lab, as well as running surveys online and developing new methods of field observation.

Group formation is one of the most adaptive and yet also perhaps the most devastating of all human traits. Without groups, we could not wage wars, commit genocides, or colonize other people’s lands. While there is much to lament about human groupishness, there is also much to admire in this proclivity as it gives rise to acts of altruism, loyalty, camaraderie, heroism, and love. But these qualities typically extend only to the group (family, tribe, or nation). Beyond the group, caution and suspicion reign: when provoked by members of rival coalitions, organized violence can easily erupt.

Social cohesion whets the appetite for such conflict. To study these processes up close, Brian McQuinn (Oxford) went to live among revolutionaries in Misrata, Libya, during the popular uprising that led to the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime. Observing the formation of rebel groups from the inside, Brian has been able to study directly how the rituals of military brigades, and their shared ordeals on the battlefield, bound them together. In December last year, in the aftermath of the revolution, I joined Brian in Libya, and we met with some of the military leaders and fighting units. Together, we designed a questionnaire using measures of identity fusion, which was then administered by a trained member of one of the brigades. The results supported our hunch that shared traumatic ordeals bind people together even more closely than other kinds of shared experience. The project team is also testing this hypothesis by surveying veterans of the Vietnam War, members of university sororities who have undergone painful or humiliating hazing rituals, mothers who had particularly traumatic birthing experiences, survivors of disasters, and other groups that are formed around shared experiences of suffering.

Our project’s third objective is to understand the role of ritual in the evolution of social complexity. Until just a few thousand years ago, group rituals were typically occasions for high excitement but nowhere had people yet begun to regularize their rituals around daily or weekly cycles. High-frequency ritual (or routinization) is a hallmark of world religions and their offshoots, but is also characteristic of a great many regional religions and ideological movements. Routinized rituals play a major role in the formation of large-scale identities, enabling strangers to recognize each other as members of a common in-group, facilitating trust and cooperation on a scale that would otherwise be impossible. This way of being religious heralds not only the first large-scale societies, but also the first complex political systems in which roles and offices are understood to be detachable from the persons who occupy them.

A watershed in the evolution of modes of religiosity seems to have occurred around 8,000 years ago at Catalhoyuk, in what is now Central Anatolia in Turkey. Discovered in 1958 by British archaeologist James Mellhart, Catalhoyuk is one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Southwest Asia. It was founded around 7,300 BC, and occupied until at least 6200 BC, providing a home to thousands of people who lived side by side in closely packed houses.

In the summer of 2011, Quentin Atkinson (Auckland), Camilla Mazzucato (Oxford), and I went to stay at Catalhoyuk to try to reconstruct the ritual lives of the Neolithic peoples who established the settlement. With the help of many archaeologists and the director of the site, Ian Hodder, we uncovered much evidence of rare, emotionally intense rituals, including animal bones resulting from hunting and feasting activities, pictorial representations of major rituals, and human remains that were manipulated in elaborate mortuary practices. These practices would have fused together highly cohesive groups necessary for coordinated hunting of large, dangerous animals. The boundedness of these groups may still be visible today in the massive trenches that appear to have divided communities in the earlier phases of settlement.

But as hunting gradually gave way to farming, the need for such groups disappeared and instead more day-to-day forms of cooperation across the settlement were required to sustain novel forms of specialized labour, reciprocity, pooling, and storage. Sustainable exploitation of the commons now required the dissolution of small-group boundaries and inter-group rivalry in favour of larger-scale forms of collective identity, trust, and cooperation extending to tens of thousands of individuals at the enlarged settlement.

This change in the scale of political association was facilitated by the appearance of the first ever regular collective rituals, focused around daily production and consumption, and the spread of identity markers across the entire settlement, for instance in the form of stamp seals used for body decoration and more standardized pottery designs. Now we are building databases spanning a much wider region in the Near East and covering a longer time period from the late Palaeolithic to the first Bronze Age civilizations. And together with Peter Turchin and Pieter Francois, as well as an army of historians, we are also building a massive historical database that will enable us to quantify patterns of relationships between ritual, social organization, and inter-group competition over 5,000 years of global history.

Ritual is popularly misconstrued as an exotic, even quirky topic – a facet of human nature that, along with beliefs in supernatural agents and magical spells, is little more than a curious fossil of pre-scientific culture, doomed to eventual extinction in the wake of rational discovery and invention. Nothing could be further than the truth. Humans are as ritualistic today as they have ever been. This is not a comment on the changing fortunes of organised religion in different parts of the world (growing and spreading in some places while undoubtedly declining in others). It is a point about the profoundly ritualistic character of all human cultures, whether in families, schools, workplaces, governments, and international relations. Rituals persist even where gods do not. Even the most secular political systems ever devised — for instance, those under the sway of historical materialism and its vision of a Communist utopia — were as devoted to ritual as any in human history. Each time a child is born, a new bearer of rituals is created.

A recently published article in Nature entitled "The Ritual Animal" presents an outline of the research being undertaken in this project. Harvey Whitehouse elaborates further in the associated podcast.
FEATURED ARTICLE: "Brothers in arms: Libyan revolutionaries bond like family"
The human propensity to sacrifice one’s life for genetic strangers has puzzled scientists since Darwin. Here, we sought answers to this puzzle by embedding ourselves within groups of individuals prepared to die for one another—Libyan revolutionary battalion members who fought against Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. We found striking evidence of extraordinarily tight, familial-like bonds among those who put themselves directly in harm’s way (i.e., frontline combatants). In fact, for nearly half of combatants, their bonds to each other were stronger than bonds to their own families. Moreover, these kin-like bonds to one another predispose them to extreme self-sacrifice. Full article available through PNAS open access.
"Human Rites" (article in Aeon)

The objective of this programme of research is to examine the universal cognitive foundations of ritualized behaviour from a developmental and cross-cultural perspective. Rituals are learned socially through the mechanism of imitation. Although the majority of research on imitation in early childhood has examined the acquisition of technical and instrumental knowledge, imitation is equally necessary to acquire the social norms and practices of cultural communities.  We propose that much of the cultural knowledge learned through imitation is causally opaque and lacks a transparent mechanistic causal structure.

Examples include the arbitrary phonemes of language, rules of etiquette, norms, and ceremonies. Learning these features of a cultural tradition requires persistent copying of causally opaque behaviour and engaging in low levels of innovative behavior. We use observational and experimental methods to show how cultural learning in humans involves a ritual stance (geared to conventional learning) in addition to an instrumental stance (geared to causal reasoning).

This work is being undertaken at the Cognition, Culture, and Development Lab at University of Texas, Austin.

Social cues and imitation

Studies examining the social nature of children’s imitation are in various phases of development. Completed studies have examined children’s tendency rigidly to imitate an actor when the actor performs an instrumental versus a ritual act. Current studies examine children’s sensitivity to social cues such as ostracism, consensus, and synchrony when navigating who and what to imitate.

Observation and quasi-experimental design

A research team is conducting rigorous behavioural analysis of preschool children’s play and instructional experiences in several locations. The analysis is particularly concerned with normative experiences, such as peer and teacher monitoring, and with play that models adult instrumental or ritual action. The information gathered will be used to design quasi-experimental behavioural tasks that will be conducted in several field sites.

Cross-cultural paradigm

The cross-cultural aspect of this project will draw on each of the subcomponents. Project heads are currently evaluating several potential field sites. At each of the chosen sites, rigid experiments (such as those contained in the social cues and imitation subcomponent) quasi-experiments (such as those developed under the observation subcomponent) and ethnography will be carried out. Field sites will be chosen to differ on dimensions that are likely to impact experimental results.

Ritual and children's social groups

This component investigates the impact of ritualistic behaviour on cohesion within children’s social groups. Middle-school children will be assigned to social groups and given a ritual to perform. Researchers are developing measures of children’s ingroup bias and peer monitoring. These measures will shed light on the mechanisms by which ritual behavior creates group cohesion.


Imitative Foundations of Cultural Learning

Imitation is multifunctional; it is crucial not only for the transmission of instrumental skills but also for learning social conventions. Although cultural learning in humans may involve an 'instrumental stance' (i.e., seeking out a rationale for actions based on physical causation), here we explore evidence for a 'ritual stance' (i.e., seeking out a rationale for actions based on social convention). What kind of information do children use to determine when imitation is an opportunity for physical causal learning and when it is an opportunity for conventional learning?

To address these questions Cristine Legare (UT) and Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford) secured funding from the McDonnell Foundation and the Fell Fund to design a new experimental paradigm disambiguating ritual and instrumental stances in social learning. Their current collaborations, now funded by an ESRC Large Grant on 'Ritual, Community, and Conflict', involve experiments, quasi-experiments, and observation, all with a cross-cultural component. The Legare & Whitehouse project currently employs several people at the Cognition, Culture and Development Laboratory (University of Texas at Austin), who also work alongside research students at both UTA and Oxford. Other collaborators on this work include Susan Gelman (Michigan) and Paul Harris (Harvard). 


  1. J.M.Clegg, C.H. Legare, and R. Watson-Jones. (2012). 'Normative learning in early childhood'. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Conference, Albuquerque, NM. (June)
  2. C.H. Legare, and H. Whitehouse. (2012). 'Imitative foundations of cultural learning'. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Conference, Albuquerque, NM. (June)
  3. C.H. Legare and H. Whitehouse (2011).  ‘The Cognitive Developmental Foundations of Ritual’. Ritual, Community and Conflict project, Objective 1 meeting, University of Texas, Austin (8th – 11th Sept)
  4. C. H. Legare (2011).  ‘The coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations across cultures and development’.  Invited presentation in the Series on Religion and the Brain, University of McGill, Montreal. (Oct)
  5. C. H. Legare and H Whitehouse (2011).  ‘Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural’.  Invited presentation at the ZiF Conference; Magic and Medicine: Conceptions of Causality in Processes of Healing, University of Bielefeld, Bielefeld, Germany. (Dec)
  6. C.H. Legare, H. Whitehouse, N. Wen and J. Segraves (2011).  ‘The cognitive underpinnings of ritual’.  Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Cognitive Development Society, Philadelphia, PA. (Oct)
  7. C. H. Legare, and A. Souza (2012).  ‘Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural’.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Anthropological Sciences conference in Las Vegas, NV. (22nd – 25th Feb)
  8. R. Watson-Jones (2011). Presentation to CAM University of Oxford (April).
  9. H. Whitehouse (2011).  ‘Neural Correlates of Religions Universals’. 2011 Lecture Series on Religion and the Brain, University of McGill, Montreal (18th Oct)
  10. H. Whitehouse (2012). Public lecture presented to the Harold Schlosberg Colloquium at the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences, Brown University, Providence (2nd May).


Journal articles -

  1. S. A. Gelman (2011). When Worlds Collide – Or Do They? Implications of Explanatory Coexistence for Conceptual Development and Change (Commentary on Evans and Lane, Harris, Legare & Visala, and Subbotsky). Human Development, 54, pp 185-190.
  2. P. L. Harris (2011). Conflicting Thoughts about Death. Human Development, 54, pp 160-168.
  3. P. A. Herrmann, D. L. Medin and S. R. Waxman (2012). When humans become animals: Development of the animal category in early childhood. Cognition, 122 (1), pp 74-79.
  4. C. H. Legare, E. M. Evans, K. Rosengren and P. Harris (2012). The co-existence of natural and supernatural explanations across cultures and development. Child Development, 83(3), pp 779 - 793.
  5. C.H. Legare and Souza, A. (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural. Cognition, 124, pp 1 - 15
  6. C. H. Legare and H. Whitehouse. (submitted). “Imitative Foundations of Cultural Learning”. Cognition.
  7. C. H. Legare and A. Visala (2011). Between Religion and Science: Integrating Psychological and Philosophical Accounts of Explanatory Coexistence. Human Development, 54, pp 169-184.
  8. A. Souza and C.H. Legare (2011). The role of testimony in the evaluation of ritual expertise. Religion, Brain, and Behavior, 2, pp. 1-8.
  9. H. Whitehouse (2011). The Coexistence Problem in Psychology, Anthropology, and Evolutionary Theory. Human Development, Vol 54, pp 191-199.

Chapters in edited volumes -

  1. S. A. Gelman and C. H. Legare (2011).  Concepts and folk theories.  In D. Brenneis and  P. T. Ellison (Eds.), Annual Review of Anthropology (pp. 379-398).  Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.
Social scientists have long recognized that rituals (especially collective rituals) bind groups together, sometimes in opposition to outsiders, but little is known about the mechanisms involved.  What is it about ritual that contributes to ingroup cohesion and outgroup hostility (potentially including parochial altruism)?  What particular features of ritual matter most?  What psychological processes are they impacting?  Does group cohesion always lead to outgroup hostility at some level or not? Initially this project focuses attention particularly on the role of synchronous movement, costly signaling, and emotional arousal in collective rituals. Principal methods include field observations, surveys, and psychological experiments cross-culturally, particularly in regions where rivalries and hostilities between groups are acute or long-standing.

Social scientists have long appreciated that collective rituals serve to bind groups together. From the 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun to the founders of modern social theory in the last couple of centuries the nature and origins of social cohesion has presented a tantalising puzzle.Arguably the most important legacy of work on this topic in the social sciences is not its theoretical contribution but the wealth of empirical research it has inspired, such that we now have a vast corpus of detailed descriptions of rituals in different cultural environments and of the patterns of group formation and competition with which these rituals seem to be associated. Unfortunately, such descriptions do not furnish us with any precise and testable hypotheses concerning the mechanisms allegedly connecting ritual participation with particular forms and intensities of group cohesion and cooperation. The following fundamental questions remain substantially unanswered: Why do humans often put group before self? What makes us feel connected to others, trust them, cooperate with them, sacrifice for them. What psychological mechanisms are involved? What kinds of cultural environments are needed?

Jon Lanman and Harvey Whitehouse have assembled a team of collaborators to investigate these questions using lab experiments, survey research, secondary data analysis, and ethnographic fieldwork. Much of this research, funded by an ESRC Large grant on 'Ritual, Community and Conflict' is currently being conducted at UBC’s Department of Psychology led by Oxford postdocs Jon Lanman and Miriam Matthews in collaboration with co-investigators Joe Henrich and Ara Norenzayan, and the Royal Holloway’s Department of Psychology led by co-investigator Ryan McKay with the assistance of Jonathan Jong in Oxford. Other collaborators include Whitehouse and coinvestigators, Scott Atran (Michigan), Richard Sosis (Connecticut), Azim Shariff (Oregon) and Bill Swann (UT). Our research concerns interpersonal bonding and out-group relations: it centers on the psychological construct of fusion, particularly whether fusion is, in actuality, “psychological kinship”, and whether it is the powerful affiliative psychology underlying kinship which makes fusion such a behaviourally potent way of being connected to others. Our first experiment, (‘Dysphoria, Fusion, and Cooperation’), is being run at Royal Holloway and tests the effects of different ritual experiences on interpersonal bonding and cooperation. Our second experiment, (Synchrony, Self/Other Merging, and Cooperation), is being conducted at UBC. The latter study replicates previous work on synchrony with additional relevant dependent measures: fusion and identification. Two survey studies are being conducted throughout North America. These studies, (‘Family Fusion’ and ‘Vietnam Veteran Fusion’) examine hypotheses about the consequences of shared experiences (especially dysphoric experiences) and fusion on participants’ feelings towards fellow veterans or family. We are also undertaking ethnographic fieldwork among religious communities in Vancouver, in order to understand further how ritual traditions work in practice, and to inform subsequent cross-national research. Moreover, throughout most of 2011 Brian McQuinn was based in Misrata, Libya documenting the trials and tribulations of a city under siege. In December 2011, Whitehouse joined McQuinn in Libya to meet with rebel group leaders and devise a questionnaire on dysphoria and fusion during the revolution (implementation began early in 2012). 

Laboratory studies

To understand the impact of ritual on cohesion and intergroup relations, we need to isolate particular aspects of ritual participation, such as synchrony, emotional arousal, symbolism, and signaling, in order to examine their unique psychological effects. This will be accomplished through a series of experimental studies in London, Oxford, and Vancouver.  In order to ensure the generalisability of these results, we will replicate these studies in diverse environments, including Fiji, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Field studies

Rituals do not exist in isolation.  They are embedded in particular social and cultural contexts with complex histories.  If we are to understand the impacts that rituals have in the contemporary world, we must study ritual’s place in these contexts and histories. This will be accomplished through a series of field studies with both religious and non-religious groups utilizing the methodologies of  anthropology and social psychology.  While these field studies will initially be conducted in Vancouver, they will be extended to other locations including Fiji, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Ritual and Group Formation in Civil War Armed Groups

Waging a revolution requires a group of individuals who are willing to fight and die for a cause. Based on ethnographic research among rebel forces fighting in the Libyan revolution, this part of the project considers how civil war armed groups sustain the social cohesion required to motivate sustained violence and endure extreme risk. The Libyan case provides particular insight into the initial stages of group formation in civil war. These empirical and theoretical findings will be linked to a comparative study of the Colombian civil war, where armed groups formed more than five decades ago.


  1. J. Lanman (2011). ‘Ritual, Community and Conflict’. Green College Residents’ Members Series, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (30th Jan)
  2. J. Lanman (2012).  ‘Ritual, Community and Conflict: Investigating the consequences of ritual for ingroup cohesion and outgroup hostility’. Invited presentation at the Social Psychology Workshop Series, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. (Feb)
  3. M. Matthews (2011). ‘Ritual, community, and conflict: Investigating the consequences of ritual for ingroup cohesion and outgroup stability’. Pacific Conference on Prejudice and Culture, Bellingham, Washington. (Aug)
  4. M. Matthews (2011).  ‘Ritual, community, and conflict: Investigating the consequences of ritual for ingroup cohesion and outgroup stability’. Invited presentation at the Social Psychology Workshop Series, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. (Sept)
  5. M. Matthews and J. Lanman (2012).  ‘Ritual, Community, and Conflict: The Role of Rituals in Ingroup Cohesion and Intergroup Relations’.  Social Area Seminar, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.  (10th Feb)
  6. R. McKay (2011).  ‘Explaining Misbelief’. 6th Australian Cognitive Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuropsychiatry Research Forum, Macquarie University, Sydney. (24th – 25th Aug)
  7. R. McKay (2011) ‘Shared delusions’, Seminar at Research Centre in Psychology, Queen Mary, University of London, (4th  Nov)
  8. R. McKay (2011) ‘Explaining Misbelief’. School of Psychology, Research Seminar, Brunel University, London. (14th Dec)
  9. R.McKay (2012) ‘Experimental methodologies in regard to ritual behavior’  Research seminar given at the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion and Ritual, Masaryk University, Czech Republic (26 Feb).
  10. H. Whitehouse (2011).   ‘Ritual, Fusion, and Group Identity’. Ritual, Community and Conflict project, Objective 2 meeting, University of British Columbia, Vancouver (10 Aug)
  11. H. Whitehouse (2011). Public lecture presented to the Harold Schlosberg Colloquium at the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences, Brown University, Providence (2nd May).


Journal articles -

  1. J. A. Lanman (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27, pp. 49-65.
  2. J.A. Lanman (2012).  On the non-evolution of atheism and the importance of definitions and dataReligion, Brain, and Behavior, 2 (1), pp 76 - 78.
  3. R. McKay, J. Herold, & H. Whitehouse (submitted) Catholic Guilt? Recall of Confession Promotes Prosocial Behaviour. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
  4. R. McKay, C. Efferson, H. Whitehouse and E. Fehr (2011). Wrath of God: religious primes and punishment. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278, 1713, pp 1858-1863.
  5. M. Matthews and S. Levin (in press). Testing a dual process model of prejudice: Assessment and manipulation of group threat perceptions. Motivation and Emotion.
  6. W. B. Swann, J. Jensen, Á. Gómez, H. Whitehouse and B. Bastian (in press). When Group Membership Gets Personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review.
  7. J. Victoroff, J.Adelman, and M. Matthews (in press). Perceived discrimination and support for suicide bombing in the Muslim Diaspora. Political Psychology.
  8. H. Whitehouse (2011). Whence and wither social anthropology. Annales de la Fondation Fyssen Hors Serie– 30e Anniversaire, pp 19-29.
  9. H.Whitehouse (2011). Der Sinn von Ritualen: Beispiel Religion in Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Spezial 1, pp. 56-62.
  10. H. Whitehouse and E. Cohen (2012). Seeking a Rapprochement between Anthropology and the Cognitive Sciences: A problem-driven approach. Topics in Cognitive Science.
  11. H. Whitehouse and R. McKay (submitted). Religion and Morality. Psychological review.

Chapters in edited volumes -

  1. J.A. Lanman (in press).  Atheism and Cognitive Science.  The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.
  2. H. Whitehouse (2011). Religious Reflexivity and Transmissive Frequency. In Axel Michaels (ed.) Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual, Wiesbeden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
  3. H. Whitehouse (2012). Religion, cohesion, and hostility. In S. Clarke, R. Powell and J. Savulescu (eds) Religion, Intolerance and Conflict: A Scientific and Conceptual Investigation. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  4. H. Whitehouse (2012).  Ritual, Cognition, and Evolution. In R. Sun (ed) Grounding the Social Sciences in the Cognitive Sciences.  MIT Press.
  5. H. Whitehouse (2012). Whence and Whither Sociocultural Anthropology. In Edward Slingerland and Mark Collard (eds.) Creating Consilience: Integrating the sciences and humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. H.Whitehouse (2012). Religious Universals and Religious Variation. In T. Biro and I. Czachesz (eds.) Changing Minds: Religion and cognition through the ages. Leuven: Peeters Publishers.
  7. H. Whitehouse (in press). ‘Cognition, Evolution, and the Future of Social Anthropology’ In Richard Fardon, Olivia Harris, Trevor H. J. Marchand, Mark Nuttall, Cris Shore, Veronica Strang and Richard A. Wilson (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Social Anthropology, London: Sage.
  8. H. Whitehouse.  (in press). 'Explaining Ritual' in Greg Dawes and James Maclaurin (eds.) A New Science of Religion, New York: Routledge.
  9. H. Whitehouse and B. McQuinn (2012). Ritual and Violence: Divergent modes of religiosity and armed struggle. In the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Objective Team Meeting in Vancouver, August 2011


The principal aim of the third objective is to establish the effects of different ritual variables (such as the frequency and emotionality of performances) on patterns of group formation and interaction over time by drawing on recent theories and evidence from anthropology, evolutionary biology and political science. We will construct databases of archaeological materials from the Neolithic Middle East and historical materials dating from the Axial age and spanning five millennia in order to investigate how changing patterns of ritual have contributed to inter-group competition and larger-scale systems of regulation. This work will contribute to archaeological theories of the transition from foraging to farming and evolutionary theories of the origins and causes of state formation and warfare. The resulting models should also help us understand how rituals shape and constrain the formation and social morphology of rebel groups in modern civil wars.

Much of the archaeological work has  focused on the early Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük where significant changes in ritual life accompanied the shift from foraging to agriculture and the emergence of the first complex societies. The work of Harvey Whitehouse, Camilla Mazzucato (Oxford) and Quentin Atkinson (Auckland) in collaboration with Ian Hodder and his team suggests that the domestication of animals and plants required increasingly routinized forms of collaborative labour, achieved through an increase in the frequency of communal rituals and the homogenization of cultural identity markers. To test our hypotheses further, we are currently building a regional database covering more than 60 sites in Anatolia and the Levant starting with the late epipaleolithic and ending at the start of the chalcolithic. An independently-funded research student (Mick Gantley) has been recruited to assist with this work, supervised by Whitehouse and Oxford archaeologists Amy Bogaard

Since June 2011, Harvey Whitehouse, Peter Turchin and Pieter Francois are currently spearheading the construction of a large historical database addressing the same hypotheses as in the archaeological work and resulting in a coding rubric that is closely overlapping. The scope of the historical database is global and covers the past 5000 years covering variables on social complexity, ritual and warfare. Data are collected for every hundred years for over 200 polities. These polities have been chosen following a grid structure based on the Universal Transverse Mercator geographic coordinate system. In summer 2012 this project will be form part of the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), supported by a six-year $3 million grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as part of their new Partnership Grant initiative. CERC's research committee comprises Vancouver-based researchers Edward Slingerland (PI), Joseph Henrich, Ara Norenzayan, and Mark Collard, and European partners Armin Geertz and Jesper Sørensen (Aarhus University) and Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford University). 

Archaeological database

To examine the role of ritual in the transition from small-scale foraging bands to much larger and more complex agricultural societies, databases are being constructed on the prehistory of the Western Asia. Currently the focus is on the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk, documenting the spatial and temporal distribution of site material linked to ritual arousal, ritual frequency, hunting, agriculture, and social organization. These data will be used to develop mathematical models of cultural transmission to characterize the co-evolution of ritual form and social morphology during the transition at Catalhoyuk from a predominantly hunting-based to farming-based society.

Historical database

The historical database of cultural evolution will enable us to explore the empirical relationships between ritual, warfare and social complexity in human history. The database traces sociocultural evolution at approximately 200 geographical points spread evenly over the world's continents. Temporal change is captured by coding how sociocultural variables change at one-century intervals at each spatial point. In addition, several case studies have been selected for more in-depth study.

Agent based modelling

Theories under development in various parts of this project are being simulated on computers. In this way it is possible to test and refine the logical coherence of theories of both proximate and ultimate causation as applied to the relationship between ritual and social morphology. In current models groups with different kinds of rituals are placed in virtual environments with different carrying capacities, both of which affect the rules of engagement between groups and opportunities for population growth, spread, fission and fusion. Varying these parameters allows us to explore the consequences of ritual behaviour for the evolution of social groups.


  1. P. Francois (2012). ‘The ‘Ritual Community and Conflict’ – project and the quest for uniform quality data’. NIMbios workshop ‘Modelling Social Complexity’, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Tennessee. (7th Feb)
  2. P. Francois (2012). ‘Constructing a dynamic historical database on social complexity, ritual and warfare - a methodological paper’. "Past, Present, and Future in the Scientific Study of Religion", Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. (2nd Mar)
  3. D. Mullins (2012). 'The origins of literate behaviors: population size, social complexity, and routinization'.  "Royal Anthropological Institute 2nd Annual Postgraduate Conference" on September 13, 2012 at University of Kent. (13 September)
  4. D. Mullins (2012). 'Jack Goody, the literacy thesis, and religion'.  "International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion Annual Workshop" on June 25, 2012 at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark. (25 June)
  5. D. Mullins (2012). ‘The Homogenization of Religious Representations: 50 Years of Jack Goody’s “Literacy Thesis”’. "Past, Present, and Future in the Scientific Study of Religion" on March 1-3, 2012 at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. (Mar)
  6. H. Whitehouse (2011). ‘Ritual in the transition from foraging to farming’. Ritual, Community and Conflict project, Centre for Anthropology and Mind, University of Oxford. (13th Jun)
  7. H. Whitehouse (2011).  ‘Durkheimian Anthropology and the Cognitive Science of Religion’. Durkheimian Studies Workshop, School of Anthropology, University of Oxford. (9th July)
  8. H. Whitehouse (2011). ‘Ritual and Community at Çatalhöyük’. Templeton Workshop, Çatalhöyük. (29th July)
  9. H. Whitehouse (2011).  ‘Constructing Databases on Ritual and Social Morphology’. Ritual, Community and Conflict project, Objective 3 meeting, University of Connecticut. (4th – 6th Sept)


Journal articles -

  1. H. Whitehouse H., K. Kahn, M.E. Hochberg and J.J. Bryson (in press). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: Case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain and Behavior.

Project Data

Online Ethnographic Resources

Pitt Rivers Museum Brian Moser/Donald Tayler collection

Pitt Rivers Museum

Brian Moser/Donald Tayler collection

The Ethnographic Dataset on Ritual contains detailed data on 645 religious rituals from 74 cultures around the globe, extracted from the Human Relations Area Files.An analysis of the dataset was conducted by Quentin Atkinson and Harvey Whitehouse. The article can be read in Evolution & Human Behavior. 
To access the full dataset CLICK HERE.To read the coding guidelines for the dataset CLICK HERE.

Online Historical Database

The historical database is currently being developed and will be made available in due course. Information on how the database is being created and the thinking behind it can be found here:

There is also further information in the following article published in Cliodynamics:
Turchin, Peter, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter Francois, Edward Slingerland and Mark Collard (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics, 3 (2): 271 – 293.


Archaeological Database

is in preparation.
Çatalhöyük Research Project

Çatalhöyük Research Project

Project Director: Harvey Whitehouse
Objective 1 Coordinator: Cristine Legare, International Co-Investigator, University of Texas at Austin
Objective 2 Coordinator: Dr Ryan McKay, Royal Holloway University of London
Objective 3 Coordinator: Professor Harvey Whitehouse, Project Director, University of Oxford


Core Team:
Dr Quentin Atkinson, International Co-Investigator, University of Auckland
Dr Michael Buhrmester, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford
Dr Ángel Gomez, International Co-Investigator, UNED
Professor Bill Swann, International Co-Investigator, University of Texas at Austin

Dr Caroline Bettridge, Manchester Metropolitan University

Michael Hochberg, University of Montpellier II
Dr Jonathan Lanman, International Co-Investigator, Queen's University Belfast
Professor Peter Turchin, International Co-Investigator, University of Connecticut
Advisory Consultants:
Professor Scott Atran, International Co-Investigator, University of Michigan
Professor Susan Gelman, International Co-Investigator, University of Michigan
Professor Joe Henrich, International Co-Investigator, University of British Columbia
Ara Norenzayan, International Co-Investigator, University of British Columbia
Professor David Sloan Wilson, International Co-Investigator, University of Binghamton
Professor Richard English, UK Co-Investigator, University of St Andrews
Professor Paul Harris, International Co-Investigator, Harvard University
Professor Ian Hodder, International Co-Investigator, Stanford University
Azim Shariff, International Co-Investigator, University of Oregon
Dimitris Xygalatas, International Co-Investigator, Aarhus University


Lab Managers:
Jonathan Jong, University of Oxford