The Impact of Ritual on Child Cognition

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Veronika Rybanska
Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Veronika Rybanska’s The Impact of Ritual on Child Cognition, published as part of the "Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation" series, develops a new approach to studying the effects of ritual on the cognitive development of children. Advancing an experimental study of ritual in two different cultures, Slovak and Ni-Vanuatu, Rybanska seeks to synthesize her research in an interdisciplinary way, utilizing work in cognitive science on the processes of executive function abilities, anthropological research on ritual, and studies in child psychology on the ability to delay gratification. In doing so, the author’s primary theory is that an individual’s executive function is improved through the participation in rituals, which is also connected to the ability to delay gratification. The data of Rybanska’s study focuses not on religious rituals but on the social ritual of schooling as practiced by first and second graders of the two cultures at the heart of her work.  

Acknowledging diverse definitions of the term “ritual” as they exist in the works of anthropologists such as Maurice Bloch, Pascal Boyer, Pierre Liénard, Rodney Needham, Roy Rappoport and Victor Turner, among others, Rybanska defines rituals broadly as, “conventional, causally opaque and demoted behaviors” such that the definition allows for a study that is inclusive of nonreligious, socially transmitted behaviors in school-aged children (20). She also relies on an understanding of two cognitive stances that children access when learning. These stances are the instrumental stance and the ritual stance. According to Rybanska, when children rationalize the outcomes of actions based on their observations of causation, they are utilizing an instrumental stance in their process of learning. The ritual stance of learning, on the other hand, involves the children’s understanding of actions or behaviors not due to how the actions are connected to a clear goal (i.e., the actions are causally opaque), but because the actions are part of a social convention. The difference between these two stances in human thought, claims Rybanska, is similar to the distinction Émile Durkheim makes when describing the ways that humans think about the sacred and profane forms of life (33).   

In an attempt to avoid problematic generalizations that arise in the social sciences when researchers present results based exclusively on experiments with subjects from Western societies, Rybanska devotes the experimentation portion of her research equally to subjects in Slovakia, a European nation that is rapidly changing, and Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific with traditional customs and rituals (47–48). Prior to conducting her fieldwork, Rybanska also received ethical approval on the project from a number of groups, committees and individuals, including from the children themselves (110).  

The fourth chapter of the book, “Executive Function,” provides the foundation for the empirical data of Rybanska’s study: 107 children at one public school in Slovakia and 103 children at two public schools in Vanuatu participated in the study (106). To test the improvement of the children’s executive function abilities and correlating ability to delay gratification, Rybanska had the children play different “circle time” games. While taking into consideration a number of cultural differences and multiple reasons for which the rates of a children’s ability to delay gratification might vary between the locations of her experiments (66–70), Rybanska used the same materials for her experiments in both cultural contexts (106). The basis of the experiment involved an “intervention phase” in which Rybanska divided the children into three different groups: ritual, instrumental, and control. Children in the ritual and instrumental groups played different games associated with ritual stance and instrumental stance learning processes. Rybanska tested for the children’s executive function and abilities at delaying gratification before and after the experiment (107). Even though Slovak and Ni-Vanuatu cultures differ significantly, according to the results of Rybanska’s study, in both contexts executive functioning improved most in those children who were in the ritual stance learning groups (108). 

In the fifth chapter of the book, “The ability to delay gratification,” Rybanska discusses a wide range of studies that have been conducted within the fields of psychology and neurology on both the ability to delay gratification and on the important role that episodic future thinking plays in the ability to delay gratification. Rybanska lists and considers research on a number of variables, particularly socioeconomic variables, that may impact an individual’s ability to delay gratification (117–120). Rybanska ultimately connects executive function and the ability to delay gratification, stating that her research predicts the significant improvement of the ability to delay gratification, mediated by the children’s executive function, in those children who participated in the activities of the experiment connected to the ritual condition (145). 

Examination of the relationship between a child’s social learning and reproducing of the normative conventions associated with rituals and the development of executive function abilities is central to Rybanska’s work. Additional data on the replication crisis and reproducibility project in the social sciences, particularly as to how they may relate to studies on the ability to delay gratification would strengthen Rybanska’s project. Future work in this area would also benefit from further replication studies, as well as from experimentation on populations of children from broader locations around the world.  

Within the field of religious studies, Rybanska’s work is of interest to those who specialize in the social scientific study of religion, as well as to those who are interested in the less studied areas of children’s rituals and the important topic of ritual in the contexts of nonreligion and secularity.   

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anna M. Hennessey is a visiting scholar at the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, University of California, Berkeley. 

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Veronika Rybanska is Postdoctoral Associate at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, UK, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Modelling Social Systems, University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway.


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