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  • Writer's pictureGODVERSITY

SpeakUp - Are Religious Rituals Tools for Adaptive Self-Regulation?


All known human societies have rituals – activities that are singled out and endowed with special meaning and significance. Many rituals are enacted within modern secular institutions, during such events as committee meetings, award ceremonies, and sports matches. Nevertheless, the most diverse and elaborate rituals can be found among religious groups, whose members have long cultivated ritualistic practices like prayer.*

Why are the lives of countless people pervaded by religious rituals? The answer, according to Wood in the target article, lies in the social and psychological advantages that religious rituals bestow on their practitioners. From Wood’s perspective, religious rituals can be seen as psychological exercises that strengthen people’s capacity for self-control. Moreover, religious rituals may enhance people’s social standing, by providing public displays of willpower and commitment to the group. Wood’s provocative analysis of religious rituals highlights the behavioral side of religion.

This theoretical focus is highly welcome, given that modern psychology of religion has often restricted itself to the contents of people’s religious beliefs. This restrictiveness has hindered progress, because the psychological meaning of religious beliefs cannot be understood without considering religious behavior. For instance, people may subscribe to a religious worldview even when they rarely act upon them. Conversely, people may enact religious rituals even when they have not embraced a religious worldview, such as self-avowed atheists who unexpectedly find themselves praying during moments of crisis.

In short, people’s religious beliefs may or may not correspond with their religious behavior. It is therefore vital to extend the scientific analysis of religion to religious behavior, for instance as it is enacted during religious rituals. Wood’s general idea that religious rituals facilitate self-regulation is consistent with our prior theorizing in this area (Koole, McCullough, Kuhl, & Roelofsma, 2010).

Relative to our work, however, Wood places more emphasis on the effortful aspects of self-regulation. Wood’s emphasis fits with traditional views of self-regulation as a wholly conscious and effortful process that is continually at war with people’s more automatic inclinations.

Nevertheless, we believe that a broader view of self-regulation is warranted, in light of growing evidence that adaptive self-regulation is based on the coordinated interplay between effortful and automatic processes (Kuhl, Quirin, & Koole, 2015).

For instance, a recent meta-analysis showed that, compared with their less self-controlled counterparts, people with better self-control are more adept at forming habits that are aligned with their consciously held goals and objectives (de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, & Baumeister, 2012). Consequently, if religious rituals indeed improve self-regulation, then we may expect religious rituals to recruit both explicit (effortful) and implicit (more automatic) processes.


Authors: Sander L. Koolea , Marieke Meijera and Carina Remmersb. Shared via Creative Common License.


*(Bremner, Koole, & Bushman, 2011), meditation (Cahn & Polich, 2006), fasting (Sabate, 2004), ceremonial cleansing (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006), pilgrimages (Coleman & Elsner, 1995), religious holidays (Fiese & Tomcho, 2001), and even ritual sex (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000).


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