Rene Girard’s book, Violence & the Sacred, describes rituals in primitive cultures that are eerily reminiscent of an experience with a psychopath. The cycles of “idealize, devalue and discard” familiar to those who have been in relationships with Cluster B personalities, are described in the sacrificial rituals of primitive tribes. In these rituals, sacrificial victims were first treated like royalty, then slandered and abused and then immolated on an altar. Other similarities include “wearing our skin“, choosing a vulnerable victim, and playing different roles or wearing masks. Similarly, the scapegoat is said to have “the mark of the victim” which proves his guilt, while psychopaths always blame the victims for accepting abuse. Psychopaths will even say, “she deserved it for being naïve” after they con a victim.
I wondered if I was the only person to see the connection between religious rituals and aberrant human behavior, until I ran into this article by Alan Fiske, Ph.D. and Nick Haslam, Ph.D.: Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a Pathology of the Human Disposition to Perform Socially Meaningful Rituals? Evidence of Similar Content.
Previously, psychoanalytic scholars have made the most efforts to find cross-cultural consistencies in the content of cultural rituals. Freud (1907, 1912¬1913) pointed out that obsessional neuroses and religious rituals involve a similar sense of the inherent necessity of rigidly prescribed actions, although the actor often cannot explain why the action is necessary. He also mentioned that both obsessional neuroses and religious rituals tend to involve touching, washing, and displacement of taboo qualities onto new objects by direct contact with previously taboo entities. However, no one has ever systematically sampled and statistically compared the actions and ideas that occur in cultural rituals. We now have much more precise clinical statistics about the symptoms of OCD and much better ethnographic materials on cultural rituals. Do these data actually reveal a phenomenological resemblance? (p3)
Our primary hypothesis was that, across a sample of world cultures, thoughts and actions resembling OCD symptoms would be more prevalent in socially meaningful collective rituals than in other activities within the same cultures. Our secondary hypothesis was that this difference would be specific to OCD-like features: actions and thoughts resembling symptoms of other disorders would be rarer and would not so sharply differentiate rituals from control activities. (p4)
I should point out that there is difference between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. OCD is a neurosis which compels behavior that the sufferer doesn’t really want to engage in, while persons with OCPD rationalize their obsessive behavior as being logical and necessary. This study compared OCD with social rituals. OCPD was not part of the study.
The study found that 21 typical OCD symptoms, such as washing, sorting, and touching, were also prevalent in a sample of meaningful social rituals from 52 cultures, proving the primary hypothesis. The secondary hypothesis was proven by adding 19 symptoms of other psycho-pathologies which are not OCD related. Only 3 of the 19 were found to have any significant occurrence in rituals.
These features, involving anxious preoccupations, were: (1) autonomic sensations (including palpitations, dry mouth, sweating, cold extremities, etc.); (2) fear, horror, or loathing of a certain kind of thing or situation; and (3) belief that others are trying to harm the self or group. The first feature is characteristic of generalized anxiety disorder as well as other anxiety disorders, the second is characteristic of phobias, and the third, characteristic of paranoia. (p9)
The study goes further and compares the thought processes and feelings involved in both OCD and religious rituals.
The same actions and thoughts that characterize OCD are also prevalent in a sample of meaningful social rituals from 52 cultures. This remarkable phenomenological similarity suggests that similar cognitive and affective mechanisms may be involved. This model opens new possibilities for understanding both cultural rituals and pathological obsessions and compulsions. It would imply that OCD represents a pathological form of a normal, functional human proclivity. (p1)
What is the connection between OCD and psychopathy?
The authors speculate whether OCD might be a pathological form of normal human tendencies to perform rituals. Conversely, in the case of psychopathy and its relationship to ritual, I wonder if rituals aren’t a way of normalizing pathological behaviors. As far as I know, no one has studied the possible relationship between rituals and the “dramatic” Cluster B personality disorders. Although I doubt that it would help us find a cure, what I do think it will do, is allow us to see the disorders more clearly and to recognize the abusive behaviors even when masked.
Rene Girard’s genius was his ability to distill from mythology and ritual, the concepts of mimetic desire and the hidden scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating is hidden through the human mind’s tendency to rationalize. Girard’s conceptualization of the basic structures of mimesis created a lens which, when applied to a story, has the tendency to make the hidden elements materialize in stark relief. Abuse can’t hide when you know where to look.
Fiske, Alan Page, and Nick Haslam. “Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a Pathology of the Human Disposition to Perform Socially Meaningful Rituals? Evidence of Similar Content.” The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease 185.4 (1997): 211-22. Http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/. UCLA. Web. 8 June 2012. <http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/pubs/Fiske_Haslam_Is_Obsessive-Compulsive_1997.pdf>.
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