Characterizing ritual and ritualized behaviors has been a core issue in anthropology and the study of religion for more than a century. Although varying in emphasis, most theories point toward several specific behavioral features that distinguish ritual from instrumental behavior. Specifically, we have chosen to focus on the derivedness from instrumental behavior, intentional underspecification and goal-demotion. In contrast to instrumental or functional behavior (i.e., actions that cohere causally and have a necessary integration of subparts), we propose to view ritual and ritualized action as sub-categories of non-functional behavior (i.e., actions lacking causal coherence and a necessary integration between subparts). New insights in human action processing can help us explain how cognition might vary depending on the type of behavior processed. Using an event segmentation paradigm, we conducted two experiments eliciting differences in participants’ response patterns to functional and non-functional actions. Participants consistently segmented non-functional action sequences into smaller units indicating either an attentional shift to the level of gesture analysis or a problem of representational integration. Experimental studies of non-functional behavior can strengthen explanations of recurrent features of human action processing, such as ritual and ritualized behavior, as well as indicate potential sources and effects of breakdown of the system.
Recommended citation: hNielbo, K.L., & Sørensen, J. (2011). "Spontaneous processing of functional and nonfunctional action sequences." Religion, Brain & Behavior. 1(1), pp. 18-30.