by Johan M.G. van der Dennen, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Groningen, the Netherlands


Ritualization in Animals

Any evolutionary change that adds to the communicative function of signaling behavior has been called 'semanticization' by Wickler (1967). The majority of know cases of semantic alteration involves ritualization, the evolutionary process by which a behavior pattern changes to become increasingly effective as a signal (E.O. Wilson, 1975; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979).
Commonly and perhaps invariably, the process begins when some movement, anatomical feature, or physiological trait that is functional in quite another context acquires a secondary value as a signal. For example, members of a species can begin by recognizing an open mouth as a threat or by interpreting the turning away of an opponent's body in the midst of conflict as an intention to flee.
During ritualization, such movements are altered in a way that makes their communicative function still more effective. Typically, they acquire morphological support in the form of additional anatomical structures that enhance the conspicuousness of the movement. They also tend to become simplified, stereotyped (e.g., by repetition), and exaggerated in form (cf. the theory of animal communication as manipulation and signals as advertisement: Dawkins & Krebs, 1978).
Ritualized biological traits are referred to as displays. A special form of display recognized by zoologists is the ceremony, a highly evolved set of behaviors used to conciliate and to establish and maintain social bonds (e.g., the triumph ceremony of the greylag goose as described by Lorenz [1966]; vide infra).
During the process of ritualization behavior patterns may change in their function. For example, food enticing in the various Phasianids becomes a signal, the movements of swimming toward the female and toward the nest in the stickleback become a courtship dance. Furthermore, a change of motivation can be observed; in baboons, for example, the female sexual presenting posture is incorporated in the male repertoire of behavior and used as a greeting ritual. In addition, movements experience a number of changes directly related to the signalling function (E.O. Wilson, 1975; Eibl- Eibesfeldt, 1979).

Social signals must be conspicuous and most are extremely exaggerated in form and are accompanied by specially evolved releasers which enhance the effect of the movement. If they are to be maximally effective, social signals must be clear-cut and unambiguous. For this reason many of them do not vary the form of the pattern to various strenghts of stimulus: typical intensity (Morris, 1957). See e.g., Hinde (1966) and Manning (1972) for examples.
Signals have to be conspicuous and unambiguous and at the same time simple and precise so as not to be misunderstood. This is achieved by the following changes (as summarized by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979):

  1. The movements become exaggerated in frequency and amplitude.
  2. They become stereotyped and simplified by the dropping of some of the original components and the exaggeration of others.
  3. Variable movement sequences of often antithetic motivations become fused into a stereotyped single movement pattern (e.g., the invitation dance of the cleaner fish or the zigzag dance of the male stickleback).
  4. Rhythmic repetition enhances the visual effectiveness of the pattern. "A ritual sequence when performed 'in full' tends to be very repetitive; whatever the message may be that is supposed to be conveyed, the redundancy factor is very high. Here it is worth reflecting on a general point of communication theory. If a sender seeks to transmit a message to a distant receiver against a background of noise, ambiguity is reduced if the same message is repeated over and over again by different channels and in different forms" (Leach, 1966).
  5. Components of orientation are sometimes changed (e.g., inciting in ducks).
  6. Sometimes movement patterns are performed with a constant typical intensity (Morris, 1957). In this manner the behavior patterns become less ambiguous. Some courtship movements of ducks illustrate this principle.
    Animal signals can be partitioned roughly into two structural categories: discrete and graded (or digital and analog). Discrete signals (on-off, yes- no) are most perfectly represented in the act of simple recognition, particularly during courtship (E.O. Wilson, 1975). Discrete signals become discrete through the evolution of 'typical intensity' (Morris, 1957). That is, the intensity and duration of a behavior becomes less variable, so that no matter how weak or strong the stimulus evoking it, the behavior always stays about the same.
  7. Movements may 'freeze' into postures: attacking movements, for example, often have developed into threat postures. Greylag geese greet each other with a special triumph ceremony which is basically a threat posture. The necks outstretched as if in threat do not however point toward each other, but in a course past each other, as if both were displaying at a third imagined enemy. The anthropomorphic translation of this would be that they are united in threat against a joint enemy.
  8. The threshold values for the stimuli releasing the patterns often change in such a way that the more ritualized the behavior, the more easily it is released (Daanje, 1950; Oehlert, 1958).
  9. Along with the above, behavioral changes frequently cause the development of additional bodily structures which emphasize the display, for examples plumes, manes, brightly colored skin patches or fins which unfold to sails.
  10. Expressive patterns with opposing intentionality in emphasis of contrast get ritualized in clear antithesis. A marine iguana will raise itself on all its feet and make itself as large as possible in aggressive display, but will drop flat on its belly in submission. This principle of antithesis was discovered by Darwin (1873), who was the first to describe metacommunicative play signaling in dogs. Such signals appear to be ritualized aggression intention movements.
  11. Several expressive patterns can be combined, each in varying stages of intensity, thus giving rise to a great variety of expressions, which nonetheless can be reduced to a few variables. Simultaneous combination results in superposition. In cases of alternative combination the organism may oscillate between the antithetic patterns.

The concept of ritualization was originated by Julian Huxley in his 1914 study of the great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus, and developed still more explicitly in a later monograph on the red-throated diver Gavia stellata. And later reinterpreted according to the concepts of modern ethological theory by Huxley (1966).
The ritualization of vertebrate behavior often begins in circumstances of conflict, particularly when an animal is undecided whether to complete an act (e.g., intention movements: flight intention movements [take-off leap] have been ritualized to serve as a courtship display in the male European cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo [Kortlandt, 1940; Hinde, 1970]; intention movements of biting or striking are a common source of the components of threat displays).
Signals also may evolve from the ambivalence created by the conflict between two or more behavioral tendencies (Tinbergen, 1952) (e.g., approach- avoidance, fight-flight), giving rise to redirection of aggression or displacement activity (a seemingly irrelevant act; such displays are called 'derived activities' by Tinbergen to signify their origin from other types of behavior). This is known as the conflict theory of the origin of displays. But it is now recognized that ritualization is a highly opportunistic process that can be launched from almost any convenient behavior pattern, anatomical structure, or physiological change. E.O. Wilson (1975) gives the following examples: ritualized predation; ritualized food exchange (billing, licking, kissing); lip smacking; smiling and laughing (derived from primate silent bared-teeth display and relaxed open-mouth display [van Hooff, 1972]); displays derived from autonomic responses such as ritualized respiration, ritualized excretion and secretion (e.g., pheromones, sex attractants, changes in skin coloration due to changes in the surface vessels [Hinde, 1966]); and automimicry (Wickler, 1969, 1970).

Other types of changes in the relations between the movement and its causal factors also occur during ritualization. Sometimes, for instance, homologous displays in related species depend on different strength of the associated tendencies. Baerends & Blokzijl (1963), comparing the agonistic and sexual displays of two closely related cichlid fish (genus Tilapia), found that each display was associated with a particular range of values of the fight/flight ratio ([tendency to attack]/ [tendency to flee]). The value of this quotient appeared to be higher in Tilapia nilotica than that for the homologous display in Tilapia mossambica. They thus suggest that the primary difference between the two species lies in a lower threshold for aggressive responses in T. nilotica. Similarly, differences in the displays between male and female of the same species can be understood in terms of threshold differences (Hinde, 1966).

Another important concept in relation to ritualization is emanicipation of ritualized patterns. The courtship of ducks, for example includes patterns which are clearly derived from displacement preening and displacement drinking. It is possible that these patterns originally occurred by disinhibition as a direct result of a conflict between sexual and attack or escape tendencies when males courted females. One supposes that in ancestral males the appearance of preening or drinking depended on the conflict sufficiently balanced. Those males which performed these displacement activities most regularly were most successful in mating. In some way the appearance of these patterns served to arrest the female's attention and perhaps stimulate her sexually. However, in their descendants conflict may no longer be a prerequisite for the performance of preening and drinking patterns in the sexual situation. They are now almost invariable parts of courtship and highly modified in form. Tinbergen (1952) suggests that these patterns have become 'emancipated' from their original controlling mechanisms and are now controlled by the sexual mechanisms alone (Manning, 1972).

Rituals serve the function of communication. They release responses which in turn are answered; this leads to an orderly sequence of patterns of expression (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979). Events which follow the stimulus-response principle may also be observed in the rituals of man. A smile is usually responded to by a smile, a nod by a nod and a handwave in a distance greeting with a similar handwave. In addition, however, acts are fused into longer sequences.
According to these responses, rituals can, following Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979), be classified as follows:

1. Bonding
Individualized bonds evolved independently in birds and mammals from the mother-child relationship. Behavior patterns that serve bonding in the adult are derived from mother-child signals. Kissing, derived from kissfeeding, is an example of a parental behavior used to express affection and thus strengthen the bond between adults of opposite sex. Infantile appeals are used to attract friendly attention.
Rituals of bonding may be classified in various ways, according to the agents involved or the method by which the bonding is achieved.
Courtship rituals refer to the establishment of pair- bonds. Greeting rituals and feasts refer to bond formation and reinforcement outside the context of pair formation, feasts particularly on the level of groups.
If classification is by method, a particular type of bonding ritual might be categorized under the heading rituals of synchronization (e.g., dances).
Bonding, furthermore, can be achieved by rituals which express a shared concern (mourning rituals) or which unite the group ritualized by acts of joint aggression against a common enemy. Rituals of gift exchange are another category of bonding patterns.

2. Spacing and competing
Spacing is achieved by fighting and display. In intragroup aggression special inhibitions, released by appeals to submission (crying, pouting with cut-off and lowering of the head), prevent escalation into destruction (at least regarding members of the 'ingroup'). The appeals are the same universally. In addition, fighting by display occurs, one universal form being the threat stare duel. Another example may be the Kwakiutl potlatch: 'fighting with gifts'. The concept Ventilsitten refers to a category of rituals which apparently serve the function of neutralizing aggression by allowing it to have an outlet in contests which 'let off steam'.
In intergroup violence conventions are sometimes established to restrict killing to the combatants, to spare the civilians, to allow a warrior to surrender and to ban particularly destructive weapons. This is not just an invention of the 'civilized'. The Tsembaga of the Highlands of New Guinea fight wars with their neighbors, but try to avoid escalation into bloodshed if possible. According to Rappaport (1968) there are several stages of the war. At the beginning both parties rely mainly on display. After having cleared the traditional battle ground, they face each other, shouting insults and shooting at each other with arrows which lack the feathers and therefore easily miss the target. Since the parties are communicating verbally a release of tension may occur and reconciliation may result, particularly since a neutral third party is commenting on the event. Standing on a hill nearby, its members shout to the fighting parties how bad it is for brothers to fight, and that the dispute should be settled by an arrangement. Only if this fails does an escalation take place.

3. Appeasing
Appeasing is directly related functionally to aggression. Without the ability to appease, community life for potentially aggressive individuals would scarcely be possible. The simplest way to appease is by deflecting aggression-releasing signals. In man, signals which act as unconditioned aggression inhibitors are the signals which constitute the baby schema (Kindchenschema) and appeals through children have been mentioned as part of the rituals of friendly encounter. Behaving like a child may serve as an appeal as well...
Among the patterns of expressive behavior which inhibit aggression may be included smiling, pouting, ritualized cut-off and crying. Behavior patterns derived from parental and child behavior have an appeasing value, as is the case with all patterns of bonding, including verbalized appeals.

4. Rituals to keep 'discipline'
In the military circles of our culture rituals of obedience can be observed (for example, raising and saluting the flag in the morning and evening).

5. The conquest of fear
Most other human rituals may be understood as serving the conquest of fear. Man as a rational being seeks for causal explanations of events. Events which he cannot explain cause fear. In an attempt to conquer fear man invents explanations for events caused by factors which are not accessible to his direct observation. He structures his world view according to these assumptions, providing security as well as a logical framework within which to act. The trance dance of the Bushmen may serve as an example.

Ritualized fighting

Probably the most spectacular examples of ritualization involve ritualized aggression; as E.O. Wilson (1975) formulated the key question: "Why do animals prefer pacifism and bluff to escalated fighting?". The answer is that agonistic behavior is potentially advantageous but also carries very high costs (in terms of the individual's inclusive fitness): possible injury and even death, 'aggressive neglect', etc. (see especially Cronin [1991] and Van der Dennen [1995] for detailed analysis).
For each species, Wilson observes, there exists some optimal level of aggressiveness above which individual fitness is lowered.

In a situation of conflict an individual can either challenge its rival, or retreat. The advantage of challenging lies in the chance of winning the resource, which will be referred to as the payoff. The cost of challenging can be assessed in terms of the energy utilized in the conflict and the risk of serious injury. For the stronger opponent, challenging is the best strategy; for the weaker, retreat alone will provide the maximum benefit. In unequal (asymmetrical) contests it is clearly beneficial to have some method of assessing relative strengths which will allow the weaker individual to withdraw without physical injury. Such an assessment will benefit both individuals if physical conflict can be avoided, and commonly occurs where a clear discrepancy in fighting potential or resource-holding power (RHP) exists between two individuals. Thus, the (obviously) stronger individual (generally) displays and the (obviously) weaker individual (generally) withdraws (Poole, 1985).
Non-injurious contests of this type (resolved without resort to physical violence but simply by display) have been termed ritualized fighting and, until the early 1970s, many ethologists (notably Lorenz, 1964, 1966) believed that ritualized fighting had evolved because it benefited both partners and hence ultimately he species. However Maynard Smith, Price and Parker carried out a theoretical analysis of aggression using game theory which cast serious doubts on such an interpretation (Maynard Smith, 1974; Maynard Smith & Price, 1973; Maynard Smith & Parker, 1976; Cf. Dawkins & Krebs, 1978; Caryl, 1981; Poole, 1985; Cronin, 1991; Van der Dennen, 1995).
In essence their argument (as summarized by Poole, 1985) is as follows: if all individuals in a population (henceforth referred to as 'doves') settled disputes by ritualized fighting and an individual appeared who employed escalated injurious fighting (a 'hawk'), the 'hawk' would win every time. Thus the strategy 'dove' is not an evolutionarily stable strategy (or ESS) for it can always be defeated by a 'hawk' (an ESS is defined as a strategy which, if adopted by most members of a population, confers greater reproductive fitness than any alternative strategy).
As a 'hawk' would always succeed in conflict with a 'dove', the genes for 'hawk' would spread throughout the population. The time would come, however, when the probability of a hawk meeting another hawk in a conflict would increase to such a point that serious injury among hawks would be common; doves would then come to be at an advantage. Thus 'hawk' is not an ESS either and in this example, assuming that the cost of injury was greater than the benefit of winning, the final ESS would be an equilibrium point with a particular proportion of doves and hawks. The exact percentages of hawk and dove can be calculated by game theory for various values of costs and payoffs for the two strategies.
Maynard Smith (1976) appreciated that this scenario is simplified and that, for example, an individual might display conventionally against a dove but escalate when confronted with a hawk. He termed this strategy 'retaliator' and showed that it can be an ESS in situations where the cost of injury exceeds the benefit of winning.

The examples so far considered have made the assumption that the two individuals are evenly matched in the sense that each rival has a 50:50 chance of winning. In nature, however, conflicts are often asymmetrical; this may be because one individual is stronger (has greater resource-holding potential, or RHP), or one has greater need of the disputed resource, or because one individual is already holding the resource while its rival is a challenger attempting to take over.
In such asymmetrical contests, information regarding the resource-holding potential of the combatants may be available. Geist (1966) found that, in mountain sheep (Ovis dalli), a strange ram's position in the dominance hierarchy is partially determined by relative size, especially horn-size, and he observed only fights between rams of approximately equal size. Thus, it must be assumed that a ram is capable of assessing, on the basis of body and horn-size, the RHP of its rival in comparison to its own.

Where individuals are unable to detect differences in RHP, they might be expected to behave as if they were evenly matched. This would lead either to an impasse or to damaging fighting. Maynard Smith & Parker (1976), however, have shown that an arbitrary rule could be used to settle such disputes amicably. For example, the rule "resource-holder wins" is common to most territorial mammals but may also occur in competition for females, e.g., in hamadryas baboons (Kummer, 1968).
Whether or not escalated fighting occurs is also dependent upon the scarcity of the resource, conflict being more likely if a resource is highly restricted, when the payoff will be high. Escalated fighting is also more likely to occur in species in which the risk of serious injury is low.
One of the few mammalian species for which a detailed analysis of ritualized aggression under field conditions is available is the red deer (Cervus elaphus) which has been extensively studied by Clutton-Brock et al. (1979, 1982). In the rut, each stag attempts to acquire access to a groups of hinds (a harem) which he then defends against rivals. In situations in which a stag is likely to be challenged he shows threatening behavior in the form of roaring and walking parallel to his opponent.
Clutton-Brock et al. found that stags roar most in conditions in which they are likely to be challenged and that the pitch of roaring is related to the size of the animal, larger stags having lower-pitched roars. Generally stags roar alternately, each facing its opponent.
Roaring appears to function for the two stags as a means of assessment. If the protagonist remains after the roaring contest, the contestants generally commence parallel walking. This occurs most commonly when opponents are well matched. The fact that there is a strong correlation between the duration of parallel walking (a test of stamina) and that of subsequent fighting again indicates a trial of strength.
Should the other male continue to challenge, however, the antlers are used and a fight develops. Fighting stags lower the head and ram the opponent with their antlers. As the rival faces his attacker, their antlers lock together and a pushing match ensues. Each stag attempts to get uphill from his opponent and to push him backwards. The loser finally withdraws and takes to flight. Pursuit is rare because attacking involves lowering the head which reduces the male's speed. If, however, the loser slips or falls, the winner will take the opportunity to jab the flank of its fallen rival, often wounding it severely.
Fighting success is positively correlated with reproductive success and, in turn, with antler size. Success in fighting can therefore lead to a considerable gain in a male's fitness, but it also involves risks, as there is a 1:17 chance of its being seriously wounded. As a seriously-wounded stag has little chance of survival, it is apparent that the optimum strategy is avoid contests with superior rivals or those in which there is a high risk of injury.
Clutton-Brock et al. were able to show that roaring, parallel walking, and antler-pushing are three separate - ritualized - stages of escalation in a process of mutual assessment of fighting potential. This method of assessment (of size discrepancy, vigor of display, stamina and strength) is probably relatively immune to cheating.
These data support the view that roaring and parallel walks provide a means whereby rival stags can assess one another's fighting potential. Stags seldom challenge older, larger individuals, so that roaring contests rarely occur is there is an obvious visible discrepancy in size; very powerful stags of approximately equal strength, however, generally do not fight after long parallel walks, thus avoiding serious injury.

By advertizing its fighting potential, the individual conveys information to its rival and at the same time may receive information about its opponent's strength.
In situations in which there is a difference in resource-holding potential (RHP) between two individuals, the weaker may display to indicate his non- combatant status. The two main types of display concerned are termed submissive or defensive.
Submission indicates that the individual will not retaliate, even if attacked, and a common form of this behavior is rolling over on to the back or crouching. For example, submissive canids lie on the back and expose the inguinal region, sometimes also showing a submissive grin. Submissive displays are commonly shown by the young towards older group members, by females towards males and by low-ranking adults towards high-ranking dominants.
Defensive displays, often referred to as 'defensive threat' signify that the animal will not spontaneously attack its opponent but may retaliate if attacked. It is commonly used where two closely-ranking individuals are in proximity, or where a lower-ranking individual is holding a disputed resource. In many species defensive threat involves displaying the teeth as, for example, in carnivores and primates (Poole, 1985).

Human (Cultural) Rituals

According to Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979) there are similarities between phylogenetically and culturally evolved patterns of expression, which is, he contends, not particularly surprising. The selection pressures in both cases operate along similar lines. In general these patterns have to fulfill the criteria of being conspicuous, redundant, unmistakable and at the same time fairly simple as signals. Mimic exaggeration by emphasis of movement amplitude, simplification, rhythmic repetition, fusion of elements into new patterns and emphasis by additional structures of adornment are also principles in the cultural evolution of ritualistic behavior. No wonder human rituals appear to be highly stylized.

Typology of Human Rituals

In anthropology and related disciplines the terms 'ritual' and 'rite' are intimately associated with concepts such as myth, religion and the sacred (the transcendent realm), totemic cults, animal or human sacrifice, theater and dramatic expression, concerted ceremonies and collective synchronized activity (e.g., war dances, mourning procession, memorial parade).
Several features distinguish rituals from other kinds of behavior (e.g., Rappaport, 1979; Kottak, 1991). Rituals are formal - stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped. People perform rituals in special (sacred) places and at set times. Rituals include liturgical orders - set sequences of words and actions invented prior to the current performance of the ritual in which they occur.

A conventional typology of rituals distinguishes:
  • imitative rituals (rituals imitate or repeat the myths; myths are the librettos for rituals);
  • positive/negative (consecration and taboo) rituals;
  • sacrificial rituals (destruction of a victim or scapegoat);
  • and life crisis rituals (rites de passage; the transition of one mode of life to another, e.g., puberty, marriage, and death rituals; rituals of initiation, often involving symbolic death followed by symbolic rebirth; war/peace rituals) (Encycl. Britannica).

Passage rites are often collective. All rites de passage have three phases: separation, margin, and aggregation (Van Gennep, 1909; Gluckman, 1962; Turner, 1974; Fried & Fried, 1980; Kottak, 1991). In the first phase, individuals withdraw from the group and begin moving from one place or status to another. In the third phase, they reenter society, having completed the rite. The margin phase is the most interesting. It is the period - suspended - between states, the limbo during which people have left one place or state but have not yet entered or joined the next. This is called the liminal phase of the passage rite. Liminality always has certain characteristics. Liminal people occupy ambiguous social positions. They exist apart from ordinary distinctions and expectations, living in a time out of time. They are cut off from normal social contacts. A variety of contrasts may ritually demarcate liminality from regular social life. Turner (1974) and Kottak (1991) summarize a number of contrasts or oppositions between liminality and normal life. Liminality may even be demarcated ritually and symbolically by reversals of ordinary behavior. For example, sexual taboos may be intensified or, conversely, sexual excess may be encouraged.
Most notable is a social aspect of collective liminality called communitas, an intense community spirit, a feeling of great social solidarity, equality, and togetherness. People experiencing liminality together form a community of equals, and develop a strong esprit de corps.

Rituals are social acts par exellence. Inevitably, some participants are more committed than others are to the beliefs that lie behind the rites. However, just by taking part in a joint public act, the performers signal that they accept a common social and moral order, one that transcends their status as individuals (Kottak, 1991). Gluckman (1967), following analyses by Fortes & Evans-Pritchard and other social anthropologists, emphasizes that tribal ritual arises from situations where there is a conflict between the general moral order and the interests which leads individuals and groups to compete with one another: "Ritual cloaks the fundamental disharmonies of social structure by affirming major loyalties to be beyond question".

Differences between Evolutionary Ritualization and 'Cultural' Rituals:

1. Evolutionary ritualization involves the behavior of individuals; 'cultural' rituals and ceremonies mostly imply aggregates or groups (such as clans, tribes, [isosexual] age-classes) of individuals.
2. Evolutionarily, individual displays evolved to manipulate or otherwise influence the behavior of other individuals by means of conspicuous and stereotyped advertizement (e.g., inducement to copulate in courtship displays, intimidation and deterrence in threat displays, cementing a pair bond in the triumph ceremony); 'cultural' rituals are generally difficult to understand as manipulations of, or attempts to influence, other 'cultural' units (with the possible exception of ritual warfare).
3. Rituals designed by evolution are conspicuous, unambiguous, stereotyped, often repetitive, motor patterns coordinated in the brain. In 'cultural' rituals the conspicuousness, stereotypy and repetitiveness are mostly the result of (mass)organization, staging and choreography.
As most human rituals involve either some procession-like program or concerted and synchronized rhythmic activities (e.g., collective dances), it seems appropriate to refer to their succession of steps or behavioral syntax as 'choreography', though no conscious dramaturge or conductor (other than 'tradition') may be involved.

On the other hand, the triumph ceremony of the greylag goose, performed by the two pair-bonded actors, male and female, is indistinguishable from, say, a dancing human couple in its concertedness and synchronicity.

The Neural Substratum of Rituals

Psychiatrists have often pointed out that rituals (psychological counterparts of somatic stereotypes) play a paramount role in all kinds of psychopathology. Ritual is, for example, a central feature in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Turbott (1997) considers the common feature of all rituals (psychopathological or not) to be stereotyped physical activity which conveys information. Some clinical, developmental, evolutionary and religious/historical evidence suggests, according to him, that stereotyped motor behavior may be the primary phenomenon.
Indeed, humans and other animals - at least the reptilian and mammalian species - seem almost 'predestined' to develop rituals of all kinds because of their neural (cerebral) architecture: the possession of a reptilian and paleomammalian brain underneath the (in humans hypertrophied and cauliflower-like) neomammalian cortex (MacLean, 1970 et seq.; Bailey, 1987). This is called the triune brain, and it supposedly gives rise to three mentalities. Bailey explains the role of the reptilian brain (or R-complex) as follows:

At the behavioral level, the reptilian brain is a 'slave to precedent' (MacLean, 1970), calling, as it does, upon rigid, stereotyped, and preprogrammed responses steeped in ancestral learning and memory... Within the R-complex is housed the basic behavioral hardware of the animal, the evolved repository of instincts and species-typical motivational and behavioral patterns subserving individual and, ultimately, species adaptation and survival. MacLean (1976) lists a pentad of reptilian traits including perseveration, re-enactment, tropisms (both positive and negative), deception, and isopraxic behavior. Thus, reptiles, and humans when they 'regress' to reptilian levels of behavior, exhibit repetitive obeisance to daily routines and subroutines, ceremonial re-enactments and compulsive ritualism, mechanical reactions to minimal stimuli and partial representations (tropisms), nonconscious misrepresentation of motivation or intention (deception), and slavish conformance to species standards of behavior. The last fundamental parameter, isopraxis, is particularly interesting, for it is through imitation and mimicry of species-appropriate behaviors that species members act in accordance with species standards and achieve a sense of 'identity' of sorts. As MacLean (1978b) says: 'It cannot be overemphasized that isopraxis is basic for maintaining the identity of a species or social group' (p. 320)... note that reptilian behavior falls into a number of general categories including imitation and species conformity, establishment and defense of territorial areas, home-site selection, foraging and feeding, courtship, mating and reproductive behavior, ritualistic display, group formation, and competition, dominance, and aggression (MacLean 1962)... (Bailey, 1987 p. 62-63).

Konner (1982) remarks that MacLean's contribution has been to show that the reptilian brain is not concerned with mere control of movement, but with the storage and control of 'instinctive' behavior: the fixed action patterns and innate releasing mechanisms of the ethologists. "This helps explain why reptiles and birds, in which the corpus striatum is the most highly developed part of the brain, seem (much more than mammals) to have behavioral repertoires consisting of stereotyped behaviors and responses: a lizard turning sideways and displaying its dewlap as a threat, for instance, or a bird repeating over and over again the same territorial song. It isn't that mammals have no such behaviors, but rather that birds and reptiles have so little else" (Konner, 1982, p. 148).

The Ritual Cycle in Serial Killings

Joel Norris (1988), a psychologist and consultant on criminal cases in Georgia and Florida, has recently produced a psychobiological model of the serial killer's mind, his method and his madness, which at least puts the problem into some sort of order. According to Norris (as reproduced in Watson, 1995), the compulsion to kill represents the serial performance of a 'morality play' in which the same story is repeated, again and again, with different victims. In telling the obsessive tale, the killer establishes elaborate rituals, setting up a 'behavioral skeleton', which he wears on the outside like an insect, using this architecture to support his fantasies. And, Norris argues, because such killers seldom act rationally, but respond automatically to specific stimuli, it is possible to codify and predict their behavior. Norris identifies seven key steps in a typical serial killing:

  1. The 'aura' phase - in which the killer withdraws from reality and builds a fantasy that demands to be satisfied.
  2. The 'trolling' phase - involving an active search for suitable prey on carefully chosen hunting grounds. A time when the killer becomes very alert and focused, stalking victims like an accomplished predator.
  3. The 'wooing' phase - during which victims are charmed, disarmed or tricked into putting themselves at risk.
  4. The 'capture' - a moment that is savoured on the killing ground.
  5. The 'murder' itself - which is usually heavily symbolic, staged to recreate a moment in the killer's own childhood, bringing an emotional high and sexual release.
  6. Followed by a 'totem' phase - in which the killer tries to prolong the intensity by taking photographs, dismembering, eating or preserving parts of the victim or their possessions.
  7. And finally, a 'depression' phase - as illusions fade and the killer realizes nothing has been changed.

During this reprise, the killers may be lucid enough to turn themselves in and confess. Though, even when they do, they are seldom believed and frequently turned loose to start all over again. But, more often, the feelings of guilt pass and the relentless cycle begins all over again, going on and on until they are eventually caught red-handed (Watson, 1995).

A Communication-theoretical Analysis of Ritual

Rituals, like all human interactions, can be analyzed in terms of the communication theory developed by Scheflen (1968), among others.
People behave in coded, patterned ways and others perceive and comprehend these patterns. Logically speaking, were it not that interactions were patterned, behavior would be unpredictable and unreliable, and it would be impossible to sustain, mediate, and form human relationships, complete coordinated tasks, and transmit a common culture. Communication depends on a common behavioral morphology of shared meaning. Redundancy in behavioral programs reduces ambiguity.
Scheflen distinguishes 3 orders of behavioral integration in communication:

1. First-order communication: simple coordination of activities. People who know, whether consciously or not, the programs of action can perform their joint parts of the program without words or special signals. They simply do what is expected, conjointly and in synchrony. Consciousness is not necessary to the integration.

2. Second-order communication: use of integrational signals. But it is often the case that contingencies or ambiguities arise. Performers do not know precisely what to do or when to do it. Hence, special signals are introduced to modify or integrate the activities. Common examples are the use of a conductor to synchronize parts in a concert or the use of commands, bugles, whistles and other signals to coordinate a battle. The integrational signals can be classified as follows:
A. Pacing signals to regulate the speed of performance; for example, in conversations, head nods and facial expressions provide feedback of the comprehension of those listening.
B. Identification signals from the participants that indicate their roles and capacities in the performance.
C. Social integration signals that monitor deviance and facilitate coordination of performance.
D. References to contexts that indicate external events that require modification in the program.

3. Third-order communication: metacommunication. There are occasions when an interaction may be represented symbolically for someone who is not present, or a participant may learn his part better if the program can be explicated and discussed with him. There has evolved communication about communication - or metacommunication. As a consequence we can talk about activities not then in progress or speak about them while we are enacting them.
An action that is metacommunicational in function can be as simple as a gesture or a smile. For example, men may smile to indicate that their pummeling of each other is to be regarded as friendly play. Or metacommunication may be as complicated as language.
Metacommunication can be elaborated about any part of a program, any relationship, any outcome.
In the enactment of a program, the communicational and metacommunicational aspects can at least have the following relations:
  1. There may be no apparent relationship. The interactants may be performing a task and talking about entirely different matters. For example, a mother may feed her baby while talking to a neighbor about a television show.
  2. A metacommunication commentary may be conducted about the program in progress. For example, participants may verbalize what they are doing and evaluate it by some criteria or evaluate and make explicit what others are doing. This is likely to occur when novitiates are being trained or deviants corrected as in psychotherapy.
  3. Metacommunication may distort, rationalize, disguise, or draw attention from the rest of the activity of the program, either in conscious guile, unconscious delusion, or because in that culture the actual nature of the task has never been known or visualized appropriately. For example, certain Africans designate their morning and nightly drumming as bringing up and putting down the sun.

The following observation is of special importance regarding human rituals, the meaning and 'choreography' or 'syntagmatic sequencing' of which are mostly fixed by traditions: "When one is learning a program, the commentary may be learned with it and henceforth repeated with the formats without knowing why. In this way, linguistic accompaniments that do not represent understanding or insight into the activities may be transmitted from generation to generation. It can be asserted that, in some cases at least, people not only learn how to perform in first order formats, but learn how they are to refer to, think of, feel about programs. This last point has a number of implications for psychological theory. We have traditionally assumed that feelings and thoughts precede and cause behavior; this view opens the possibility that behavior may precede feelings and thoughts, or all may occur simultaneously" (Scheflen, 1968).
This also means that one cannot rely on asking subjects what they are doing. They cannot adequately tell what they are doing. What they report are feelings about behavior or idiosyncratic or cultural myths about behavior.