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Ritual Intuitions: Cognitive Contributions to Judgments of Ritual Efficacy

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Lawson and McCauley (1990) have argued that non-cultural regularities in how actions are conceptualized inform and constrain participants' understandings of religious rituals. This theory of ritual competence generates three predictions: 1) People with little or no knowledge of any given ritual system will have intuitions about the potential effectiveness of a ritual given minimal information about the structure of the ritual. 2) The representation of superhuman agency in the action structure will be considered the most important factor contributing to effectiveness. 3) Having an appropriate intentional agent initiate the action will be considered relatively more important than any specific action to be performed. These three predictions were tested in two experiments with 128 North American Protestant college students who rated the probability of various fictitious rituals to be effective in bringing about a specified consequence. Results support Lawson and McCauley's predictions and suggest that expectations regarding ordinary social actions apply to religious rituals.


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Affiliations: 1: Research Investigator and Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Michigan; 2: Professor and Chair, Department of Comparative Religion, Western Michigan University


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