My research focuses on the interaction between cognition and culture, particularly with regards to religious and ritual practices. In my work I seek to develop and apply scientific methods and technologies in ethnographic field research. I have conducted several years of fieldwork in Southern Europe and Mauritius. Before coming to UConn, I held positions at the universities of Princeton, Aarhus, and Masaryk, where I served as Director of the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion (LEVYNA). I am currently a visiting Associate Professor at Aarhus University and an affiliate of the Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences. At UConn, I direct the Experimental Anthropology Lab, which develops methods and technologies for quantifying behavior in real-life settings.
Areas of Expertise (4)
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
Outstanding Researcher status (professional)
US Department of Homeland Security
Distinguished Fellow (professional)
Religion, Cognition & Culture unit, Aarhus University
Media Appearances (8)
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.
Martin Lang, Vladimír Bahna, John H Shaver, Paul Reddish, Dimitris Xygalatas
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.
Farid Pazhoohi, Martin Lang, Dimitris Xygalatas, Karl Grammer
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.
Nicholas M Hobson, Juliana Schroeder, Jane Risen, Dimitris Xygalatas, Michael Inzlicht
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.
Dimitris Xygalatas, Silvie Kotherová, Peter Maňo, Radek Kundt, Jakub Cigán, Eva Kundtová Klocová, Martin Lang
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.
Benjamin Grant Purzycki, Joseph Henrich, Coren Apicella, Quentin D Atkinson, Adam Baimel, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan
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.