The (Fire) Walker’s High: Affect and physiological responses in an extreme collective ritual

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How do people feel during extreme collective rituals? Despite longstanding speculation, few studies have attempted to quantify ritual experiences. Using a novel pre/post design, we quantified physiological fluctuations (heart rates) and self-reported affective states from a collective fire-walking ritual in a Mauritian Hindu community. Specifically, we compared changes in levels of happiness, fatigue, and heart rate reactivity among high-ordeal participants (fire-walkers), low-ordeal participants (non-fire-walking participants with familial bonds to fire-walkers) and spectators (unrelated/unknown to the fire-walkers). We observed that fire-walkers experienced the highest increase in heart rate and reported greater happiness post-ritual compared to low-ordeal participants and spectators. Low-ordeal participants reported increased fatigue after the ritual compared to both fire-walkers and spectators, suggesting empathetic identification effects. Thus, witnessing the ritualistic suffering of loved ones may be more exhausting than experiencing suffering oneself. The findings demonstrate that the level of ritual involvement is important for shaping affective responses to collective rituals. Enduring a ritual ordeal is associated with greater happiness, whereas observing a loved-one endure a ritual ordeal is associated with greater fatigue post-ritual.
Original languageEnglish
JournalP L o S One
ISSN1932-6203
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 14 Feb 2014

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