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Do Anthropologists Consider the Ice Bucket Challenge an 'Extreme Ritual'?

According to anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, pouring ice water on our heads isn't all that different from Kavadi, a Hindu ritual that involves skewering your cheeks.

All photos courtesy of Dimitris Xygalatas (left)

On October 2, the ALS Association announced that they would be spending the first $21.7 million of the more than $115 million raised from the Ice Bucket Challenge as they continue to search for ways to treat and cure ALS. While people like bioethicist Peter Singer may complain about Americans' emotional giving habits, the challenge's financial success is indisputable. Still, the question of why so many people decided to participate in public displays of suffering remains. Could it be the same impulse that gives us the more elaborate and seemingly masochistic rituals seen in other cultures?


Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut who has extensively studied extreme rituals. His current work focuses on the Hindu Kavadi ritual in Mauritius, a small part of the larger festival known as Thaipusam. Kavadi is famous for the painful experiences of practioners who impale themselves with thick rods or hang items from hooks in their skin. The more devoted participants attach a six foot tall altar to themselves using more than 100 hooks. However, not all participants engage in such feats of physical endurance and many simply carry a jug of milk or another offering for the five- to six-hour procession. Kavadi is celebrated by Hindus in many countries and, according to Xygalatas, "might be the most widespread extreme ritual that we know of."

During his research in Mauritius, Xygalatas's team conducted an experiment in which they gave participants a small sum of money after the Kavadi had ended. Then, they gave participants the opportunity to anonymously donate to the local temple. In a piece for a few weeks ago, Xygalatas summarized the results thusly: "The more pain devotees felt, the more money they gave to charity. And this was true even among observers: The more painful they perceived the ritual to be, the bigger their donations." He concluded the article by rhetorically asking whether a "drink a cup of cocoa challenge" would be as successful as the Ice Bucket Challenge in raising money for ALS, which seemed like a good question.


In an effort to answer it, I reached out to Xygalatas.

VICE: Anthropologically, is the Ice Bucket Challenge an extreme ritual?
Dimitris Xygalatas: In the sense that it is a social practice which has no causal relation to its purported outcome, then yes, it can be considered a ritual—and in most of its versions, a pretty extreme one too.

Why did you set out to study the extreme rituals of the Kavadi in Mauritius?
As an anthropologist, I was always fascinated by rituals, because they are one of the most puzzling aspects of human behavior. Think about it: All societies, without a single exception, are awash with a variety of rituals, so much so that we take them for granted. And I am not just talking about religion. Our life is permeated with ritualized activities that have absolutely no causal relation to their purported goals or contexts: from raising our glasses to toast or our hands to swear in court to laying a red carpet for an important arrival or holding a graduation ceremony.

The reason I chose to study "extreme" rituals is that they are inevitably even more puzzling, as those who perform them spend not only time and resources but actually subject themselves to pain and suffering. Mauritius was an ideal place for me because its tremendous ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity offers ample opportunities for studying such rituals. Among the various religious groups that make up its population, one can find ceremonies that involve, for example, walking on burning coals, piercing of the body, self-flagellation, or walking on nails or knives.


Why test for charitable impulses?
The idea behind that study was to examine the effects of ritual intensity on prosocial behavior. Now, obviously, "prosociality" is a general term that can cover a very wide range of human behaviors and attitudes, which means that in order to understand it more precisely, we need to look at some of its more specific expressions. In our study, we chose to use a charity as a measure of prosociality, because it is an activity that everyone is familiar with and it carries real cost to the participants. A lot of previous studies had simply relied on asking people about their behavior, but the truth is that we have no way of knowing whether people's pronouncements correspond to their actual behavior (in fact, we know very well that they often don't). So by using a task that felt natural and involved real monetary costs, we were, quite literally, asking people to put their money where their mouth is.

Do you think the Ice Bucket Challenge was successful exactly because ALS wasn't highlighted as much during the ritual?
In part, yes. There are many other ways to raise public awareness, but this particular campaign was so successful precisely because it challenged people to suffer. We should always keep in mind, however, that large-scale phenomena always have complex causes. For example, the fact that the campaign was endorsed early on by a number of celebrities certainly didn't hurt.


How has the Kavadi festival changed over time?
This is a very good question and actually something that I would like to investigate in the future. I suspect that a historical study might reveal what is called "runaway selection" process, which means that the intensity of the ritual might increase as people continuously try to compete and keep up with one another.

Do you anticipate the Ice Bucket Challenge will evolve in a similar way?
Oh, I think it already did. People have clearly been trying to top one another. For example, one person held an ice bucket over her head while horseback-riding (and fell off the horse), while another used a crane instead of a bucket (which hit him on the head and killed him). All sorts of things happened.

Have people died during the Kavadi?
Not to my knowledge, no.

Participants in the Kavadi seem to be looking for unique ways to stand out. Also, there seems to be a great diversity in terms of what the people are doing.
Yes, that's correct. There is great diversity in the Kavadi. First of all, there are people who simply follow the procession. Then there are people who carry a pot of milk instead of a Kavadi. There are those who have one needle through their tongue or cheek, and those who have hundreds of needles. Last year, my team and I were running some biometric measures using an armband the size of a wrist watch, and there were some people who had so many needles through their skin that we couldn't find a patch of skin with two inches of free space to place the armband.


Does peer pressure play into the Kavadi?
Peer pressure is always a factor in such rituals. In some cultures there are initiation rituals which people are virtually obligated to perform—otherwise they won't be able to have a social life. Rituals like the Kavadi are entirely voluntary, but peer groups set examples and create norms that can be powerful motives for participation.

Might somebody of a lower status use this as a way of pointing out that they are more devoted than someone of a higher status? Do higher-status folks feel a bit put on the spot?
Though my ethnographic work it became clear to me that this is indeed the case. People who are better positioned within the social network and possess other forms of social capital are less motivated to perform the more extreme versions of the ritual. That role is typically occupied by people who have a more peripheral position in the social network. For them, ritual intensity is a form of signaling commitment to the group and thus increasing their status. We've been running a project for a year now to see whether we can quantify this, by measuring the size of the Kavadis and mapping them onto the social network of the area.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was similar in that there's the lower-intensity version where people forego the ice bucket and just donate—which many people certainly did. Did we see a similar dynamic there?
In a way, you could apply this to the ALS challenge. For example, Obama didn't do it, but he did donate. Same with Tony Blair. He was nominated, but he didn't do the Ice Bucket Challenge—he donated money. There are different forms of participation, and people can signal different things by engaging in one or the other version. A president is a powerful figure, so he has no need to demonstrate that he is a "tough guy." Instead, he signals his generosity.


Based on the pictures you supplied, it seems like the higher-intensity rituals tend to be performed mostly by men. Why might that be?
There are women who do it, but they almost never do the really intense stuff. They carry smaller Kavadis and have one or two small piercings. I've never seen a woman pierce herself with rods or have 100 needles. There is no formal rule against it; they just don't do it. We see this in many domains of life. Men are more prone to risk-taking. One possible explanation is that for men this is a way of competing or signaling qualities like bravery, strength, healthiness, devotion, or all of the above to their peers and potential mates. That might also explain why younger men are the ones who raise the stakes even higher.

The fundamental question: Why do you think extreme public voluntary group suffering leads to more prosocial behavior?
That's a very complex question. And to tackle it, you have to look at it from multiple perspectives. For example, on an individual level, such rituals can trigger physiological mechanisms that trigger the brain's reward systems by inducing pleasurable feelings, which are then projected to the group. Research also shows that when we pay a higher price to join a group, we value group membership more. Another view is that such rituals function as costly signals to the community—if you are willing to put a rod through your cheeks to participate in the ritual, this shows that you are really committed to the group and thus makes you a more trustworthy member of the community.

One difference between the Kavadi and the Ice Bucket Challenge is obviously that most participants weren't together geographically. Rather, they were connected via social media. Could the same group effects occur in this way?
No. In this respect I wouldn't compare the two. It's hard to argue for a group effect here. Having said that, though, I don't doubt that in some local settings it might have functioned very similarly within the group, e.g. if your buddy is doing it then you also have to do it. Since these things are transmitted virally on Facebook in small networks of people, we can't compare them directly.

Would you say that analyses like those done by Peter Singer for Batkid or the myriad charts comparing ALS donations to other causes/diseases are a bit narrow, then, and miss the mark?
It depends on whether we are talking about individual behavior or government policy. I would like to see my tax money spent based on a careful, rational, priority-based analysis. For example, if cancer kills more people than ALS, the government should direct more funding toward researching, preventing, and treating cancer compared to ALS, because public agencies have limited budgets and must play a zero-sum game: For every extra dollar you spend here, you have to cut one there.

But those who extend the same logic to individual charity would be missing the point entirely. A rationalist, utilitarian approach to private giving is both naive and inefficient. Humans are not rationalist decision makers. Our choices are based on emotion just as much as (and often even more than) utility, and if a campaign can successfully play on emotion to save human lives, then I am all for it. Besides, private givings are not a zero sum game. People who donated $100 to ALS would not have necessarily donated the same (or any) amount to another charity if it weren't for the Ice Bucket Challenge. In fact, such successful fundraising campaigns can create a surge in charitable giving across the board, by making charity a more fashionable activity.

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