When alterations are violations: Moral outrage and punishment in response to (even minor) alterations to rituals

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022 Jul;123(1):123-153. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000352. Epub 2021 Jan 25.


From Catholics performing the sign of the cross since the 4th century to Americans reciting the Pledge of Allegiance since the 1890s, group rituals (i.e., predefined sequences of symbolic actions) have strikingly consistent features over time. Seven studies (N = 4,213) document the sacrosanct nature of rituals: Because group rituals symbolize sacred group values, even minor alterations to them provoke moral outrage and punishment. In Pilot Studies A and B, fraternity members who failed to complete initiation activities that were more ritualistic elicited relatively greater moral outrage and hazing from their fraternity brothers. Study 1 uses secular holiday rituals to explore the dimensions of ritual alteration-both physical and psychological-that elicit moral outrage. Study 2 suggests that altering a ritual elicits outrage even beyond the extent to which the ritual alteration is seen as violating descriptive and injunctive norms. In Study 3, group members who viewed male circumcision as more ritualistic (i.e., Jewish vs. Muslim participants) expressed greater moral outrage in response to a proposal to alter circumcision to make it safer. Study 4 uses the Pledge of Allegiance ritual to explore how the intentions of the person altering the ritual influence observers' moral outrage and punishment. Finally, in Study 5, even minor alterations elicited comparable levels of moral outrage to major alterations of the Jewish Passover ritual. Across both religious and secular rituals, the more ingroup members believed that rituals symbolize sacred group values, the more they protected their rituals-by punishing those who violated them. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Male
  • Morals
  • Punishment*