For Religious Ritual, Function Follows Form

For Religious Ritual, Function Follows Form

Rituals have power. That’s why people cry at weddings — it’s not just two people coming together, but the way they are brought together. If the officiant were to begin the service by saying, “So, you want to do this?” it simply wouldn’t feel “right.” There’s an expectation that each partner will be asked something along the lines of, “Do you take this person to be your wife?” and “Do you take this person to be your husband?”

When it comes to ritual, it is not simply the content that people resonate with — it’s the form. As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman describes it, ritual is “performative language”:  “To say something ritually is not to declare as true that which already exists independently, but to manufacture a new truth by an artistic portrayal of the meaning behind phenomena.” In other words, rituals have the power to create a new truth, particularly about a change in status, such as from moving from being single to being married.

But can rituals create new truths about ourselves? Can ritual potentially improve our ethical lives? A study done by psychologist Dan Ariely seems to imply an answer of “yes,” as he examined why people steal, and how we can create more honesty.

When we think of “stealing,” we tend to think of someone grabbing our wallet or bursting our house and taking our valuables. But as Ariely notes, the cost of all the armed robberies in the United States was less than 1/1000 of the cost of employees’ theft and fraud in the workplace. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 195-6) Why is that?

Well, if people can rationalize a small amount of stealing, they’ll probably do it. The truth is, there often is an economic incentive to cheat — that’s why it happens in the first place! And so people tend to steal when they do a quick cost/benefit analysis, and determine that the benefit of taking a little more than they deserve is higher than the potential cost of getting caught.

Ariely began by having people took a very hard math test, and they were rewarded based on how many questions they got right. When people took the test normally, they got (on average) three questions right. But when they were given the opportunity to just tell the experimenter how many questions they got right (and no one would be checking to see if they told the truth), the subjects claimed to have gotten (on average) four questions right. In other words, when there was no real incentive to stay honest, people cheated.

Just as in religious ritual, function follows form, in iGaming, one of the fastest growing sectors of the entertainment industry, the content and design of games are adapted to the expectations and preferences of players. An article just on this topic came out at This allows for an engaging gameplay experience where each element serves a specific purpose, whether it’s to engage the user, create an atmosphere or increase winning opportunities.

Perhaps that’s not all that surprising. But then Ariely put a twist on the experiment. This time, before taking the test, participants were asked to remember the Ten Commandments. People remembered on average only about two(!) of the Ten Commandments, but in fact, that didn’t matter — they weren’t testing how well the people recalled the Commandments; they were testing to see if thinking about ethics made people act more ethically.

Amazingly, it did. When people told the experimenter how many questions they got right, this time they didn’t lie and say, “Four!” — instead, they were totally honest and told the experimenter they got only three right!

As a final step, Ariely then wondered whether there could be a secular analog to the Ten Commandments that would have the same effect, so this time, he asked participants to sign a document saying that they “understood that this study falls under the MIT Honor Code.” That worked as well — and it worked even though MIT doesn’t even have an honor code!

Ariely drew this conclusion:

…once [we] begin thinking about honesty…[we] stop cheating completely. In other words, when we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thought, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we much more likely to be honest. (Ariely, 213, italics mine)

So how do we remind people of morality? I would argue that it’s actually not content we need to be focus on — it’s form. To think in a way that leads us to act ethically, we need to utilize words that have a deep resonance for us.

Think of it this way: imagine this experiment had taken place in India, with Hindu participants, speaking Hindi. Would the Ten Commandments have had the same effect on increasing honesty? I highly doubt it, because there’s not a cultural, historical and societal reinforcement about the importance of “following the Ten Commandments.”

And on the flip side, all of those factors were present when the (non-existent) MIT Honor Code reduced cheating — the participants cared about their relationship to their school, which may have arisen because of loyalty to MIT, or out of fear that violating its “Honor Code” might result in expulsion. By having participants say that they “understood that this study falls under the MIT Honor Code,” Ariely was using words that had power.

The function of these words was to increase honesty, but it was really their form that

And perhaps that’s how prayer can be powerful for us. Prayer is a ritual formulation that is designed to elevate ourselves. In fact, the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpallel, literally means, “To judge or examine oneself.” It’s a reflexive verb. The purpose of formal prayer isn’t to ask for things — it’s to remind us of the best we can be.

Ultimately, prayer and ritual can create new truths about ourselves, and help us to become the kind of person we want to be.

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