Dimitris Xygalatas is Associate Professor in the departments of Anthropology and Psychological Sciences and director of the Experimental Anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut. Most of his work focuses on the social and psychological functions of ritual, which he studies by combining ethnographic and experimental methods. He has spent several years conducting ethnographic field work in Southern Europe and Mauritius. His work has been published in over 100 books and articles across various disciplines. He has served as President of the International Association for the Cognitive and Evolutionary Sciences of Religion (IACESR). His most recent book is Ritual: How seemingly senseless acts make life worth living (Profile/Little Brown 2022).
The Transformative Effects of Collective Gatherings
From religious rituals to college graduations, and from music festivals to athletic events, collective gatherings are found in every human society. At first glance, these events may seem to offer little more than entertainment, but people around the world find them deeply meaningful, and recent research shows that they serve important social functions.
Those who participate in emotional collective gatherings often report feeling part of something bigger than themselves, as if they become one with the crowd. This transcendental feeling can have transformational power for their sense of who they are. At the social level, it can also have far-reaching implications.
In a study conducted in Spain, we found that people who walked across burning coals in the context of a local firewalking ritual indeed felt like one – not only in their minds, but also in their bodies: their heart rates became synchronized during the ceremony, and this was true not only for those walking on the embers, but even for their friends and families who were watching.
In a more recent study, we followed basketball fans as they watched their favorite team play, either in the stadium or on television. We found that when they attended the game in the stadium, they had greater heart rate synchrony compared to groups watching remotely. They also experienced the game as more meaningful, and that experience was associated with feelings of greater social connection.
The ability of collective gatherings to inspire and mobilize crowds seems to rely upon the emergent inter-personal dynamics that unfold among individuals, an effect which is experienced differently by those who witness the same event remotely. At a time when virtual events are increasingly the norm, our study highlights the importance of physical co-presence in building group membership.