Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut. His research interests include some of the things that make us human, including ritual, sports, music, cooperation, and the interaction between cognition and culture. His work on those topics involves an interdisciplinary approach that combines lab and field methods. He held positions at the universities of Princeton, Aarhus, and Masaryk, where he served as director of the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion (LEVYNA). At UConn, he directs the Experimental Anthropology Lab, which develops interdisciplinary methods and technologies for studying behavior in real-life settings. He has conducted several years of fieldwork in Southern Europe and Mauritius. His research has been published in numerous journals across various fields, including anthropology, biology, psychology, religious studies, and general science. He is the author of the monograph The Burning Saints, and coeditor of the volume Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion. He is the President of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion.
Areas of Expertise (4)
Cognition and Culture
Queen’s University Belfast: Ph.D., Anthropology 2007
Institute of Cognition and Culture, School of History and Anthropology
Aristotle University-Aarhus University: M.A., Religious Studies 2004
Aristotle University Thessaloniki: B.A., Religious Studies 2002
2022 William C. Bier Award (professional)
Presented by the American Psychological Association, this award honors an outstanding contribution through publication and professional activity to the dissemination of findings on religious and allied issues or who has made a notable contribution to the integration of these findings with those of other disciplines, notably philosophy, sociology and anthropology.
Outstanding Researcher status (professional)
2014 US Department of Homeland Security
Distinguished Fellow (professional)
2014 Religion, Cognition & Culture unit, Aarhus University
Media Appearances (23)
Rituals are important to human life — even when they seem meaningless
NPR's All Things Considered radio
NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas about his new book, Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.
How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living
Literary Hub online
Hosted by Andrew Keen, Keen On features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the economic, political, and technological issues being discussed in the news, right now. In this episode, Andrew is joined by Dimitris Xygalatas, author of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.
The Transformative Effects of Collective Gatherings
Inside Higher Ed online
The COVID-19 pandemic has made us realize the importance of being around other people. In today’s Academic Minute, the University of Connecticut’s Dimitris Xygalatas explains why. Xygalatas is an associate professor in the departments of anthropology and psychological sciences at UConn.
UConn Study Explains Why Watching Sports Live Creates a More Memorable Experience
NBC Connecticut tv
On Super Bowl Sunday, 117 million people were expected to tune in to the big game. Despite finger foods, parties and creative commercials, it is going to be a much more memorable experience for the 70,000 people who will be watching in-person at the stadium. That is according to a new study out of UConn that shows there is nothing like the live experience for sports fans. It was conducted at Gampel Pavilion, where one is sure to hear cheers, applause, and the roar of fans at a UConn basketball game. "So many people around the world care deeply about sports!” Dimitris Xygalatas, UConn Associate Professor of Anthropology, said.
Why our brain craves pattern-seeking rituals like Wordle
Humans’ brains are designed for pattern-seeking in order to help us make sense of the world, said Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut. When humans aren’t able to find patterns, we can experience stress, he said. Something like doing Wordle daily can give people a sense of regularity and a sense of control. Xygalatas’s studies have found that people who participate in collective rituals have lower levels of cortisol that correspond with lower stress and are often able to build social-support networks. This is why, he said, communal rituals — such as cheering for health-care workers from apartment balconies — took off in the early months of the pandemic.
How to Design Your 2020 Holiday Reboot
New York Times print
Why humans care so much about traditions and rituals has been the focus of Dimitris Xygalatas’s career. “It’s especially puzzling because I’ve asked thousands of people why their rituals are important to them,” said Dr. Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, “and the most common response is to look at you and say, ‘What do you mean, it’s just what I do,’ or ‘I don’t know — that’s just our tradition.’”
The Lost Year
The Atlantic print
Rites marking important milestones “play a key role in shaping what we call our narrative self, the sense of who we are and how we came to be that person,” Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, told me. “For many people, the lack of ceremony is experienced as a feeling of emptiness, as if their very life narrative had a gap in it.” What’s more, as Xygalatas’s research indicates, the predictability of rituals is soothing. They “help us maintain a sense of structure and control in our lives, and this can allow us to overcome some of the stressors of daily life,” he said. Skipping beloved—and reliable—holiday traditions can leave people feeling additionally unmoored in a year when they could use extra comfort.
‘Very little will be business as usual’: COVID forces changes, or cancellations, for Christmas staples around NYC
New York Daily News print
The unsettling changes in the ways Christmas is being celebrated test the way we usually ease anxiety — with rituals, says Dimitris Xygalatas, an associate professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Connecticut, where he’s director of the Experimental Anthropology Lab. “It’s a unique predicament,” Xygalatas said. “What do we do about it? Well, we’ve already seen people get very creative during the pandemic... drive through birthdays, virtual weddings and funerals.” “And with every single one of them it’s not the same thing, but it helps,” he said.
Keeping the Holiday Season Bright
New York Times print
As we settle into a December with a social calendar nearly as barren as it was in April, the quietness of the days ahead feels heavy. “This is perhaps an unprecedented time in the history of humanity,” not because it’s the first time humans have experienced a pandemic, but because it’s the first time we’ve responded to one this way, said Dimitris Xygalatas, an associate professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Connecticut.
‘Let’s bring joy into the house as early as possible’ – why Britain is already celebrating Christmas
The Guardian print
The rituals around Christmas, now largely a secular tradition, play an important role, says Dimitris Xygalatas, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, who studies the impact of rituals. He says that he has discovered over two decades of research that rituals have two benefits: “They help us alleviate anxiety and they help to increase social connection. And in the current context, we’re really missing both of those things.” With much of this year spent in lockdown, and days all bleeding into one without the usual markers or events to differentiate them, our sense of time drifts. “This is why I think people crave more than ever to get started with these big celebrations,” says Xygalatas. It is something of an anchor – that even in this extraordinary and uncertain period, and whatever it looks like this time – Christmas is still going to happen, as it does every year.
Sanitizer for Santa? Families Adapt to a Strange Holiday Season
New York Times print
Finding new ways to to create stability and connection is important, especially during the pandemic, said Dimitris Xygalatas, an associate professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Connecticut, who has studied rituals for two decades. The predictable and rigid nature of rituals helps to soothe anxiety and form social bonds, he added. “This is precisely the time where we need these rituals or traditions more than ever, and it’s exactly the time where we can’t have them. It creates a lot of extra anxiety,” Dr. Xygalatas said.
As the Coronavirus Rages, Birthday Parties Celebrate Life in Isolation
New York Times print
In times of high anxiety and stress, as during a war or a pandemic, adult behavior becomes more ritualized, said Dimitris Xygalatas, a professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Connecticut. The meaning of birthday parties becomes more poignant, and the more effort they take and more witnesses they have, the greater the sense of importance, he said. “When you can’t have the celebration that you usually have, you are missing the human connection,” Dr. Xygalatas said. “People are finding ways to make up for it, synchronizing activities so it feels like we are one.”
Summer camp is passed down over generations in some families
Associated Press online
Returning to the same camp over generations is an ideal way to enhance family connections, said Dimitris Xygalatas, a professor in the departments of anthropology and psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Family traditions ``provide a feeling of continuity, and this is very important for our sense of collective identity and unity,” he said. “When we do things the way our ancestors have done them, we feel that we are continuing their heritage.”
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Gender-Reveal Backlash
The Atlantic online
It makes sense that a new ritual devised for pregnancy would be full of balloons and cake, rather than prayers and blessings. That’s in keeping with the trajectory of modern American society, in which atheists are one of the fastest-growing religious groups. “As society becomes more secular, we do turn to more nonreligious rituals,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.
For many families, ’tis the season for matching jammies
Associated Press print
Matching clothing is a way for families to strengthen their bonds and announce their connectedness, says Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropology professor who studies rituals at the University of Connecticut. As families become more far-flung, dressing alike at the holidays may be a way to make the annual gatherings more fun and more over-the-top, he says.
First Civilizations: Ritual
Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas records the ritual of Sufis in Istanbul to see how the physical experience affects their bodies.
How feats of endurance cement social bonds
The Economist print
Dimitris Xygalatas, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, is intrigued by communal activities that involve pain or the possibility of it. He has looked in detail at the Thaipusam festival as practised in Mauritius, and also at fire-walking rites in Greece and Spain.
Anthropologist Highlights The Importance Of Rituals
National Public Radio radio
"We often don’t realize how full of rituals our lives are," anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas said. "We tend to think this is something early societies might have done more. But actually, today we have just as many rituals as ever."
An anthropologist explains why we love holiday rituals and traditions
Ritual marks some of the most important moments in our lives, from personal milestones like birthdays and weddings to seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving and religious holidays like Christmas or Hanukkah. And the more important the moment, the fancier the ritual.
The Perennial Power of Ritual
Rituals soothe, excite, and unite people throughout the world. But how exactly do they work, and what makes them so meaningful?
The Psychology of Ritualized Suffering
Society for Personality and Social Psychology online
Human ritual behavior poses an intriguing conundrum. Throughout recorded history, people in all times and places around the world have spent great amounts of time, resources, and energy in organizing, performing, and attending collective ritual practices that, at first glance, offer no obvious benefits to their performers. In fact, certain cultural rituals even involve physical and psychological pain and suffering – think of practices like genital mutilation, piercing, cutting and self-flagellation, walking on burning embers or shoes made of nails, and other gruesome activities. Why do so many cultures have such extreme rituals that seem to go against some of our most basic instincts, such as the avoidance of pain and harm?
What Happened to the Ice Bucket Challenge?
The New Yorker online
If the success of the challenge had come at the expense of other charities, ambivalence might be justified. But there’s almost no evidence that this was the case. According to Giving U.S.A., individual donations in the U.S. rose almost six per cent in 2014, which doesn’t suggest any cannibalization effect. Indeed, it’s likely that the very nature of the challenge, which belongs to a category known to anthropologists as “extreme ritual,” made people more openhanded. Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the effects of such rituals, ran a fascinating experiment with people who were undergoing kavadi—a Hindu ritual that commonly involves piercing the skin with sharp objects and then making a long procession while carrying heavy objects. Xygalatas found that people who did kavadi, and even people who just joined in the procession, donated more to charity than people in a control group. And those who gave the most painful descriptions of the experience donated the most. As a result, Xygalatas has suggested that the Ice Bucket Challenge, far from stealing from other charities, almost certainly increased the total size of the pie.
Pain Really Does Make Us Gain
New Yorker online
Last year, Dimitris Xygalatas, the head of the experimental anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut, decided to conduct a curious experiment in Mauritius, during the annual Thaipusam festival, a celebration of the Hindu god Murugan. For the ten days prior to the festival, devotees abstain from meat and sex. As the festival begins, they can choose to show their devotion in the form of several communal rituals. One is fairly mild. It involves communal prayer and singing beside the temple devoted to Murugan, on the top of a mountain. The other, however—the Kavadi—is one of the more painful modern religious rituals still in practice. Participants must pierce multiple parts of their bodies with needles and skewers and attach hooks to their backs, with which they then drag a cart for more than four hours. After that, they climb the mountain where Murugan’s temple is located.
Why magical thinking is so widespread – a look at the psychological roots of common superstitionsThe Conversation
Growing up in Greece, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ home in a small coastal village in the region of Chalkidiki. It was warm and sunny, and I passed most of my time playing in the streets with my cousins. But occasionally, the summer storms brought torrential rain. You could see them coming from far away, with black clouds looming over the horizon, lit up by lightning. As I rushed home, I was intrigued to see my grandparents prepare for the thunderstorm. Grandma would cover a large mirror on the living room wall with a dark cloth and throw a blanket over the TV. Meanwhile, Grandpa would climb a ladder to remove the light bulb over the patio door. Then they switched off all the lights in the house and waited the storm out.
Burning Man highlights the primordial human need for ritualThe Conversation
At the end of each summer, hordes of people flock to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to erect a makeshift city the size of the Italian town of Pisa. They call it Black Rock City. A few days later, they will burn it to the ground, leaving no trace. During their time together, they partake in an extravaganza of unique experiences. Wearing wild costumes and riding carnivalesque vehicles, they attend colorful parades, spectacular light displays and interactive art installations. Since its inception in 1986, attendance has increased from a few dozens of individuals to over 70,000 — and hundreds of thousands in various regional versions around the world.
Demolishing schools after a mass shooting reflects humans’ deep-rooted desire for purification ritualsThe Conversation
After the recent shooting in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers, some local residents want the school demolished. Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez said that President Joe Biden has offered to help the school district secure a federal grant for the building’s demolition. This is not uncommon. In numerous similar cases, buildings were knocked down, abandoned or repurposed in the aftermath of a tragedy. After the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, that school was destroyed and rebuilt on a different spot on the same property, at a cost of US$50 million. And in 1996, the town of Gloucester in England bought the house where a couple, Fred and Rosemary West, raped, tortured, and killed 12 young women. The town razed the property to the ground, burned all timber, pulverized each brick and dumped the debris at a secret location before turning the lot into a park.
How burying the dead keeps the living humanThe Conversation
Olena Koval found out that her husband was dead via text message. He was shot by Russian soldiers inside their home in Bucha while she was sheltering nearby, their neighbors told Human Rights Watch. In the days that followed, despite the brutal cold and her spinal disability, she made repeated attempts to recover his body but was turned back each time by the soldiers’ threats. As the atrocities escalated, Olena fled Bucha to save her remaining family. Before their departure, she left a note with a neighbor that marked where her husband’s body was, hoping someone could give him a burial. War is synonymous with death, but its emotional toll extends beyond the loss of life. The inability to say farewell to one’s loved ones and lay them to rest can often be just as painful.
What’s the point of holiday gifts?The Conversation
Whether it’s the dread of a trip to an overcrowded shopping mall, the challenge of picking out the right gifts, the frustration over delivery delays or the hit to the wallet, shopping for holiday gifts can be stressful. What’s the point of it all? Shouldn’t the holiday season simply be about family, friends and food? And wouldn’t everyone just be better off spending their own money on things they know they want? Gift exchanges may seem wasteful and impractical. But as social scientific research reveals, the costs and benefits of gift-giving aren’t what they seem.
Why do presidential inaugurations matter?The Conversation
As one president’s term ends and another begins, there is a ceremony. Its importance is one of symbolism rather than substance. The Constitution is clear: On Jan. 20, there will be a transfer of power. There is no mention of an inauguration. By definition, ritual acts have no direct effect on the world. A ceremonial event is one that symbolically affirms something that happens by other, more direct means. In this case, the election – not the inauguration – makes the president, although an oath is required before exercising his power.
Why people need rituals, especially in times of uncertaintyThe Conversation
Responding to the coronavirus pandemic, most American universities have suspended all campus activities. Like millions of people all around the world, the lives of students all over the U.S. has changed overnight. When I met my students for what was going to be our last in-class meeting of the academic year, I explained the situation and asked whether there were any questions. The first thing my students wanted to know was: “Will we be able to have a graduation ceremony?” The fact that the answer was no was the most disappointing news for them.
Sync to Link: Endorphin-Mediated Synchrony Effects on CooperationBiological Psychology
Martin Lang, Vladimír Bahna, John H Shaver, Paul Reddish, Dimitris Xygalatas
2017 Behavioural synchronization has been shown to facilitate social bonding and cooperation but the mechanisms through which such effects are attained are poorly understood. In the current study, participants interacted with a pre-recorded confederate who exhibited different rates of synchrony, and we investigated three mechanisms for the effects of synchrony on likeability and trusting behaviour: self-other overlap, perceived cooperation, and opioid system activation measured via pain threshold. We show that engaging in highly synchronous behaviour activates all three mechanisms, and that these mechanisms mediate the effects of synchrony on liking and investment in a Trust Game. Specifically, self-other overlap and perceived cooperation mediated the effects of synchrony on interpersonal liking, while behavioural trust was mediated only by change in pain threshold. These results suggest that there are multiple compatible pathways through which synchrony influences social attitudes, but endogenous opioid system activation, such as β-endorphin release, might be important in facilitating economic cooperation.
Religious veiling as a mate-guarding strategy: Effects of environmental pressures on cultural practicesEvolutionary Psychological Science
Farid Pazhoohi, Martin Lang, Dimitris Xygalatas, Karl Grammer
2017 Male parental investment can contribute to the fitness of both sexes through increased fertility and child survivorship. The level and intensity of parental investment are dependent upon ecological variations: in harsh and demanding environments, the need for biparental care increases. Moreover, when environmental pressures increase, uncertainty over paternity may lead to favoring stricter mate-guarding practices, thus directing males to invest more effort toward controlling and guarding their mates from infidelity. In this paper, we test the hypothesis that religious veiling, as a social and cultural practice which regulates and restricts sexuality, will be more important in harsher environments. Our results show that harsh and demanding environments are associated with the importance of religious veiling and the level of religiosity, providing a link between cultural practices such as religious veiling and ecological variation.
The psychology of rituals: An integrative review and process-based frameworkSSRN
Nicholas M Hobson, Juliana Schroeder, Jane Risen, Dimitris Xygalatas, Michael Inzlicht
2017 Traditionally, ritual has been studied from broad sociocultural perspectives, with little consideration of the psychological processes at play. Recently, however, psychologists have begun turning their attention to the study of ritual, uncovering the causal mechanisms driving this universal aspect of human behavior. With growing interest in the psychology of ritual, the current paper provides an organizing framework to understand recent empirical work from social psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience. Our framework focuses on three primary regulatory functions of rituals: regulation of (1) social connection, (2) emotions, and (3) performance goal states. We examine the possible mechanisms underlying each function by considering the bottom-up processes that emerge from the physical features of rituals and top-down processes that emerge from the psychological meaning of rituals. Our framework, by appreciating the value of psychological theory, generates novel predictions and enriches our understanding of ritual and human behavior more broadly.
Big Gods in small places: the Random Allocation Game in MauritiusReligion, Brain & Behavior
Dimitris Xygalatas, Silvie Kotherová, Peter Maňo, Radek Kundt, Jakub Cigán, Eva Kundtová Klocová, Martin Lang
2017 The relationship between religion and social behavior has been the subject of longstanding debates. Recent evolutionary models of religious morality propose that particular types of supernatural beliefs related to moralizing and punitive high gods will have observable effects on prosociality. We tested this hypothesis, comparing the effects of diverse religious beliefs, practices, and contexts among Hindus in Mauritius. We found that specific aspects of religious belief (related to moralizing gods) as well as religious practice (participation in high-intensity rituals) were significant predictors of prosocial behavior. These findings contribute to a more nuanced understanding of religious prosociality and have significant implications for the evolution of morality.
The evolution of religion and morality: a synthesis of ethnographic and experimental evidence from eight societiesReligion, Brain & Behavior
Benjamin Grant Purzycki, Joseph Henrich, Coren Apicella, Quentin D Atkinson, Adam Baimel, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan
2017 Understaning the expansion of human sociality and cooperation beyond kith and kin remains an important evolutionary puzzle. There is likely a complex web of processes including institutions, norms, and practices that contributes to this phenomenon. Considerable evidence suggests that one such process involves certain components of religious systems that may have fostered the expansion of human cooperation in a variety of ways, including both certain forms of rituals and commitment to particular types of gods. Using an experimental economic game, our team specifically tested whether or not individually held mental models of moralistic, punishing, and knowledgeable gods curb biases in favor of the self and the local community, and increase impartiality toward geographically distant anonymous co-religionists. Our sample includes 591 participants from eight diverse societies – iTaukei (indigenous) Fijians who practice both Christianity and ancestor worship, the animist Hadza of Tanzania, Hindu Indo-Fijians, Hindu Mauritians, shamanist-Buddhist Tyvans of southern Siberia, traditional Inland and Christian Coastal Vanuatuans from Tanna, and Christian Brazilians from Pesqueiro. In this article, we present cross-cultural evidence that addresses this question and discuss the implications and limitations of our project. This volume also offers detailed, site-specific reports to provide further contextualization at the local level.