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Agent and Instrument in Judgements of Ritual Efficacy

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Justin Barrett and E. Thomas Lawson (2001) were among the first to operationalize experimentally a traditional topic of anthropology: 'ritual'. Using a similar experimental protocol, the authors further investigate the cognitive underpinning of representations of ritual actions. Participants were asked to judge the likelihood of success of variants of a series of prototypical ritual actions. In line with Barrett and Lawson's findings, it was expected that specific intuitions would guide participants' judgements about the well-formedness of ritual actions; that representation of superhuman agency would be pivotal in those judgements; and that the role of the ritual agent would be conceived as fundamental. The present study was particularly focused on the effect of changing Agent or Instruments in descriptions of a set of prototypical ritual actions. Following a second line of inquiry, contexts in which the prototypical actions were set were systematically manipulated. It was expected that this would affect patterns of answers. No such contextual effect was found, but the study revealed significant differences in how participants appraised different changes affecting Agent and Instrument. The authors finally speculate that specific systems dedicated to the processing of information about Agent and Instrument might explain these findings.

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