Sure, you might have a tongue piercing. But would you consider something far more extreme for a bump on the social ladder? In episode 62, we’re joined by Dimitris Xygalatas from the University of Connecticut, who talks with us about how extravagant and painful rituals can foster greater subjective health and social standing. His open access article “Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices on Psychophysiological Well-Being” was published on August 30, 2019 in the journal Current Anthropology.



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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Xygalatas, D.. (2019, November 12). Parsing Episode – Ritual Pain for Social Gain. figshare.


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Dimitris Xygalatas: A lot of what creates pleasure, happiness, or meaning in our lives sometimes has to do with things like suffering.

Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.

Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today, in episode 62 of Parsing Science, we’re joined by Dimitris Xygalatas from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Anthropology. He’ll discuss his research into the kavadi: an extreme ritual involving pain and suffering, which not only has no discernible long-term harmful effects on its participants … it may actually improve their social status and psychological well-being.

Leigh: Here’s Dimitris Xygalatas.

Xygalatas: Hello, I’m Dimitris Xygalatas. I am an anthropologist and a cognitive scientist. I originally come from Greece, but have lived in seven different countries. I’ve now been in the United States for five and half years, and I work at the University of Connecticut. My background is both in anthropology and in cognitive science. So, I did my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast at the Institute of Cognition and Culture. And I also did part of my graduate studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, where I later became a faculty member. And later I went on to become the director of a research institute in the Czech Republic at Masaryk University which is called LEVYNA. It’s the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, and this was the first Institute in the world to be exclusively dedicated to the experimental research on religion. And in fact this study originated when I was at Masaryk University.

And this is something beautiful about the scientific process, and the way the scientific community should – in principle – operate. So what happened was a colleague of mine sent me a paper that Sammyh Khan had coauthored, and cc’d the author. And I responded with some criticism; some methodological criticism. And Sammy wrote back, and he was very open to discussing this. So we we started this very interesting email exchange, which eventually led to me inviting him to give a talk at my institute, and eventually led to us applying and getting a grant that allowed us to to buy the equipment and recruit the team to do this study. So we ended up working together. And we went to Mauritius, and that’s how this study came about.

Leigh: While we might refer to our daily self-care routines as “morning rituals,” most of us nonetheless recognize that cultural rituals occur within the context of the traditions of a particular community. Some – like rites of passage – may provide access to such communities, while others may symbolically reaffirm our membership in them. We began our conversation by asking Dimitris to explain what rituals are, and how the extreme rituals he studies differ from our more typical ones.

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