Over the past two years members of the Culture, Social Ecology, and Psychology lab have been working in collaboration with the cognitive anthropologist Prof. Harvey Whitehouse and researchers at the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology (University of Oxford) on a large international project exploring various aspects of ritual behaviour worldwide. Christopher Kavanagh, a doctoral research student from Oxford, has been based at the lab on a long-term research visit and coordinates research efforts in collaboration with various lab members, including Robert Thomson and Shuhei Tsuchida.

Collaborating with anthropologists inevitably involves field research and over the past two years members of the lab have been instrumental in collecting data from a variety of sites, ranging from impressive fire-walking festivals performed in mountainous temples on Miyajima, to students jumping out of 2nd floor windows and into piles of snow, during a student-dormitory winter ‘festival’.


The broader ritual project involves teams from over 15 countries and addresses topics including the evolutionary origins of ritual behaviour and the role of ritualised behaviour in early childhood development. However, the research topic that the lab is involved with primarily focuses on the impact of high arousal collective rituals on both personal identity and social bonding. We examine whether the effects differ for observers and performers and the extent to which the effects of collective euphoric (pleasant) and dysphoric (unpleasant) arousal differ. In particular, we have been investigating recent claims that extreme rituals promote prosocial behaviour and a proposed linkage between identity fusion and shared dysphoric experiences.


The Japanese cultural environment also presents a unique setting to explore such issues due to a combination of low levels of explicit religious belief but high levels of participation in ritual events and festivals.

Our methods

To explore the impact of high arousal rituals a variety of different methods have been employed, including:

1) Lab-based experiments that involve artificial collective rituals.


2) Field research at various ritual events held across Japan.

Kanchu Misogi

3) Online studies including both large-scale attitudinal surveys and innovative experimental questionnaires.

Kanchu Misogi winter purification ritual at Teppozuinari Shrine

Some Photos:

More info: If you are interested in the project and want to find out more, please feel free to contact Christopher Kavanagh by email ( or check out either the main project website at ( or Prof. Whitehouse’s personal website (