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Anthropology in Practice

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Fooling Ourselves: The Everyday Role of Ritual

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Photo by KDCosta. Used with permission.

April Fools’ Day is not unique to Western cultures. People all over the world and all throughout history have celebrated the coming of Spring with festivals of deception and lightheartedness. In this spirit, all this week, we’ll explore themes of magic, fraud, and trickery.

Today is Opening Day for the New York Mets. Like other springtime rituals, opening day holds the promise of things to come. It’s a fresh start; the previous years’ mistakes are forgotten. Of course, in a game so thoroughly rooted in stats, these good feelings can vanish after the first game. But for a few glorious moments before the first pitch is thrown, the possibility of an amazing season stretches before players and fans alike.

Once the season is underway, holding on to this possibility takes some work. Leaving things to chance, particularly in crucial situations, can be a difficult thing to accept so we look try to manage this uncertainty by creating and adhering to routines. This helps us take as many steps as we can to possibly influence events. It doesn’t have to be complicated: maybe you always leave your keys in the same place to reduce the chances you’ll leave the house without them, maybe you always sit in the same same seat because it means you might be able to catch the connecting bus or train, or perhaps you only go grocery shopping at a particular time because you might get fresher bananas. None of these outcomes are guaranteed—if you’re rushed in the morning you could grab the wrong bunch of keys, or the train or bus you’re on could be late and cause you to miss your connection, or maybe baking banana bread is trending and bananas are sold out. Any number of things can happen, so we reduce the possibility of variation by repeating actions that have worked for us in the past. When the risk is small our routines are simple, however as the risk starts to grow and extends beyond the confidence in our skills, so does the intricacy of the routine. And as the routine grows increasingly established, it solidifies into a ritual.

This type of behavior isn’t limited to a time or place. The Trobriand Islanders, for example, practiced very little ritual preparation when fishing in the lagoon because they expected a consistent return for their efforts. The variables within the lagoon could be managed within the range of their knowledge and skill. However, they were more rigorous in the routines they executed before leaving shore if they were headed to the open seas. The risks were greater offshore which required greater preparations. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who visited and studied the Trobriand Islanders at the beginning of the 20th-century, found similar patterns of behavior in a host of activities: gardening, canoe building, warfare, even planning gatherings were all governed by degrees of ritual behavior. The greater the chance the outcome could not be reliably governed by the skills of the individual, the more elaborate the preceding ritual. And it’s not that the Trobriand Islanders were a superstitious lot. They knew that they couldn’t rely solely on ritual to make a vessel sea-worthy; they knew the mechanics of canoe building and they knew the appropriate steps to take in stormy seas, but the accompanying rituals added a degree of security. Things could still go wrong, but they were preparing as best as they could.

Baseball is no different. Players will tap the plate and adjust their gloves as they get settled in the batters box. If things are going well for a player he might wear the same unwashed socks for future games or eat the same things before each game (Wade Boggs was fond of fried chicken). And if things aren’t going well, then he’ll make a conscious effort to change his routine and introduce a new ritual. The shift may be marked by something drastic like shaving his head, symbolizing a clean start. If things aren’t going well for the team, then they’ll all try to change in an effort to re-sync—the Mets did this in 2009 when they all shaved their heads to try and get out of a slump. Fans may only watch games from a certain seat or wear a certain clothing or eat or drink specific foods in an effort to contribute to the outcome of the game. This is particularly absurd since the fans aren’t actually on the field. Rationally players and the fans know they won’t actually influence the game, but these types of actions add a degree of control in the face of uncertainty. Rituals help us believe in possibilities.

In 1985, Sports Illustrated broke a story about an amazing baseball player being trained by the New York Mets. His name was Hayden Sidd Finch, and he was a nobody who claimed to have uncovered the art of the pitch after visiting Tibet. Finch possessed a crazy fastball— at 168 mph(!), John Christensen, Dave Cochrane, and Lenny Dykstra who stood in for a demonstration were little more than targets for Finch. And he was as odd an any player today in that he pitched while wearing only one heavy hiking boot.

Finch spoke exclusively to the New York Mets, and participated in Spring Training. At the time the article broke, Finch was waffling between an offer to play for the team and a career as a horn player. The Mets were scrambling to make him an acceptable offer, and the baseball held its breath while his future was decided.

The story was, of course, a hoax but people widely believed it—even though an 168 mph fastball seems a little hard to swallow on a regular day. Fans clamored for more information, the local press sulked and complained that Mets PR had leaked the story to Sports Illustrated and not to them, and managers across the country worried about having to face that fastball. It was believable because Finch’s purported expression of ritual was believable within the context of baseball:

  • He said “Namaste!” before and after his pitching exercises.
  • He never wore a complete uniform.
  • He always wore his baseball cap back to front.

These might seem like small details but they went a long way toward making this story realistic because these details implied that as good as he was, even he acknowledged that chance was a factor to his success. And his intimation of doubt and reliance on ritualized behavior made him familiar: we ourselves do little things like this every day. It was easy therefore to get swept along in the hype. In the same way our rituals help to assure ourselves, his rituals assured us. We were able to believe in the possibility of such a player.

Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day. Jokes will undoubtedly be made, pranks will be played, and silliness will reign. These will be intentional acts of deception that target others, but today we will fool ourselves just as willingly with the hope that it will produce a positive outcome. Our everyday rituals will help us believe that we’re helping ourselves. After all, a world without a sense of possibility would be pretty bleak.

What are some of your everyday rituals? Are there any routines that you follow to help the teams you follow?


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Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Fooling Ourselves: The Everyday role of Ritual ... 7:30 am 04/1/2014

    [...] April Fools' Day is not unique to Western cultures. People all over the world and all throughout history have celebrated the coming of Spring with festivals …  [...]

    Link to this
  2. 2. Fooling Ourselves: The Everyday role of Ritual ... 12:00 am 04/11/2014

    [...] Scientific American (blog) Fooling Ourselves: The Everyday role of Ritual Scientific American (blog) Once the season is underway, holding on to this possibility takes some work.  [...]

    Link to this

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