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Pain makes people more charitable

Posted July 17, 2013
A participant in the Kavadi ritual. Credit: Dr Ron Fischer

A participant in the Kavadi ritual. Credit: Dr Ron Fischer

A study involving Victoria University researchers supports the longstanding theory that taking part in extreme, painful rituals increases prosocial behaviours and attitudes including making people more charitable.

Religion expert Dr Joseph Bulbulia, Associate Professor in Psychology Dr Ron Fischer and Dr Paul Reddish are contributing to international research which seeks to understand why extreme religious rituals have persisted throughout human history and into modern times.

The trio visited the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius last year to observe two rituals that occur during the annual Hindu festival, Thaipusam. “We’re interested in understanding why so many religious rituals contain an element of suffering, and why extreme rituals, such as those in Thaipusam, persist for centuries,” says Dr Bulbulia.

The team examined a ‘low-ordeal’ ritual involving singing and group prayers, and compared it to a ‘high-ordeal’ ritual known as Kavadi. The two rituals are similar in most respects, except in terms of their intensity.

Kavadi ritual Kavadi involves body piercing with multiple needles and skewers, carrying heavy bamboo structures, dragging carts attached by hooks to the skin for over four hours, and climbing a mountain barefoot to reach a religious temple.

With colleagues from Denmark and the Czech Republic, the three researchers carried out the first ‘natural’ experiment investigating the social effects of taking part in extreme rituals. They randomly selected participants and asked each a series of questions about social identity shortly after one of the two rituals had taken place.

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