The essential role of ritual in the transmission and reinforcement of social norms

Psychol Bull. 2012 May;138(3):529-49. doi: 10.1037/a0027038. Epub 2012 Jan 30.


Social norms are communally agreed upon, morally significant behavioral standards that are, at least in part, responsible for uniquely human forms of cooperation and social organization. This article summarizes evidence demonstrating that ritual and ritualized behaviors are essential to the transmission and reinforcement of social norms. Ritualized behaviors reliably signal an intentional mental state giving credibility to verbal expressions while emotionally binding people to each other and group-based values. Early ritualized infant-caregiver interactions and the family routines and rituals that emerge from them are primary mechanisms for transmitting social norms vertically from parent to offspring, while adult community rituals are a primary mechanism by which norms are reinforced horizontally within the community.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Communication*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / psychology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intention
  • Pan troglodytes
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Psychological Distance
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Social Conformity*
  • Trust