Rituals, OCD and Psychopathy
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>.
Copyright © 2012-2018 Skylar
Sky, I think you’re more than well equiped to study the ritual/psychopath angle. You should be published.
This is interesting. Am I wrong in thinking that OCD worsens during times of emotional and physical stress and trouble? I can see the parallel there b/c religious ritual, such as human sacrifice, also appeared to intensify during same such times of stress and trouble.
This is a weird thought – but if Jesus dying on the cross eliminated the primal human necessity for a scapegoat, wldn’t Christians, people who believe this in their hearts, be exempt from OCD? If we have been relieved of that need, I don’t know why it wld still be inside us trying to express itself via OCD.
The part that always frustrated me about ritual sacrifice (human more so than animal), and which parallels OCD quite nicely, is that I expect it to end something or satisfy something once and for all, but it doesn’t, it just placates, and then must be addressed or enacted or contained throughout ones life over and over.
I was watching Broken Minds on Discovery Health and it is interesting how OCD got so bad for this one guy that he eventually lost all voluntary control of his left hand. It was like a B horror movie- My Killer Left Hand. It had a mind of its own and of course there was no satisfactory diagnosis why.
I was thinking of that show while reading this because OCD seems to manifest worse and worse over time in most individuals. When I was watching all of those Hoarding shows, these people would completely fall overboard into their hoarding or OCD disorder when they experienced something traumatic, like divorce or death of a loved one.
It’s a coping skill gone horribly wrong. I have absolutely nothing intelligent to add to the basis of ritualism and OCD. It goes way over my head. Sorry.
Parallel and Woundhealer,
Maybe the scapegoat mechanism is revealed by Jesus, but you still have to choose not to use it.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that there are some people who will always need a scapegoat. They just can’t find it in themselves to stop attacking others.
OCD isn’t something I know very much about. Stress would seem to make it worse, but I think helplessness is what causes it. If you feel you can’t make sense of the world around you, then you do things that will create meaning for you. Superstitions are that way too.
Perhaps on a tangent, but the sociopath who abused me was also OCD.
Sorry I have not been online. I spilled juice on my keyboard and I am trying to get another one. I should get it by the end of next week when I have finances. It has been so frustrating reading everything and not been able to join in.
Thanks Skylar for the email. It was between that and something woundhealer said that moved me to take two buses to my brothers to use his PC.
Woundhealer. I loved your posts when you were getting all your venom out about him. We are all big girls and guys here and understand that you are not malicious. It is just venom and here was the best place to spill it.I personally got a great laugh as you have a very descriptive way about you.
Also-please don’t back track into ‘I am bad’ for saying this mentality. We are not all the same and I love that Skylar has someone to debate her clever blogg with. I don’t feel able at the moment but perhaps one day when the PTSD is not so bad I will be able to join in in the debate. In the meantime I learn from their discoveries.
So I will be joining again in soon and I am reading what you all say so I am with you in heart, soul and spirit.
Woundhealer-chin up and call the tosser what you want.
STJ….glad you showed again. I was missing you. Thanks for the update!
Wound healer, YOU are a courageous woman. I accept your healing process, 100%, and I support you in whatever direction you need to take. (((hugs)))
This is a great article. I was thinking of this last week, when I posted that the disordered seem to ‘call’ to our primitive impulses. It is as if they are stuck in a VERY ancient cycle of human compulsion. And we get dragged in because the impulse is buried in each of us to participate in this mimetic and sacrificial cycle. But they do seem to have a COMpulsion, whereas WE have the impulse, but can over ride it with knowledge and subsequent choice.
I know what I am saying can push buttons, because it implies they are not able to make choices, and therefore we can go ahead and feel sorry for them. I don’t know the answer to this circular disagreement. It’s just my experience that they don’t ultimately seem to be ABLE to use their brains for change. They only use their brains for repetition.
I wish I could live to see the parts of this human tale that provide more clarity. I wonder if we will ever understand The Disordered, in a way that helps them heal?
Interesting take on the so called “primitive natures”.
I have to contribute something–that for me at the time–was so out of my frame of reference as I was in the midst of dealing with a most full-blown psychopathic individual for the first time of my life: His claim that he displayed sex addict features in his behavior was due to his “caveman” nature as though it was normal and not at all unordinary. I often wondered why he would try to excuse or explain obvious throwback and uncivilized qualities and try to justify them within the structure of the civilized group.
From the perspective of the ritualistic and obsessive (lack of awareness and self control) angles, one can see how these emotionally immature individuals feel their caveman behavior is somehow their version of acceptable and normal.
It’s like the scorpion and the frog where the scorpion stings the frog after begging him for transport across the pond, “It’s my nature”.
My reaction to hearing such a three year old mentality explanation for obviously uncontrolled and deviant behavior was to…hmmm… Go all cave woman on him? In other words to approach the behavior and it’s apparent justification on the level to which it is apparently acceptable in the cretin’s mind and to kick his psychopathic caveman knuckle dragging nature to the cave curb.
No. I never physically touched him in a mean way. I simply went a far more modern and legal route and got a restraining order on him …which I plan to extend into the future as long as he’s alive because he is dangerous, abusive, threatening and I believe he’s confessed to me his participation in an unsolved murder.
I’m fairly certain most of you here who’ve learned about these type of people up close and personal all have had your lives threatened by these cavemen crowd. This is frightening and unnecessarily stressful for anyone to deal with. That it motivates one to make a huge research project out of it may be the gift that this tragedy has hidden within it. As the Chinese saying goes, Crisis is opportunity. Because these people are vessels of chaos and crisis, one can work the problem out and engineer solutions from breaking the problem down into basic elemental features and sorting it out from there. It’s interesting in an academic way but absolutely terrifying to be around this type of caveman.
Thank you for this blog, Skylar, it’s been extremely informative and helpful. You’re a fantastic writer, too, as are all of your commenters. Thank you to all for sharing your thoughts. I think the body of work that’s accumulating regarding these disordered individuals will be their complete undoing in a very short time. Knowledge is power and one thing they lack is knowledge. They can’t have power over us when we know more about them than they do!!
I like your name, it sums up the experience succinctly!
I’ve also experienced 2 spaths who liked to think of themselves as cavemen. They got the primitive part right but they applied it incorrectly. They are primitive in the way infants are primitive, disconnected from reality and without identities.
But yeah, there is so much to know, to learn and to teach others. That’s the answer to psychopathy: uncover it, don’t let it hide and don’t let it become “acceptable” because it isn’t. It is a disease that has ravaged the human species since the beginning and it’s been hidden under rituals, scapegoats, social conventions and whatever else people can find to excuse abusive behavior. They are so good at hiding the truth that’s been right under our noses since the beginning. The more we uncover it, though, the more it disguises itself or justifies itself, so we have to be resolute about seeing it clearly and calling it what it is.
But spaths just keep telling us, shamelessly, that it’s OK to be evil. My spath sister actually SAID that. She also said, “I’ve always been selfish, that’s just the way I am.” Like the scorpion, they say, “well that’s my nature.” and think that makes it okay. It is not their nature, it is their CHOICE.
You did the right thing by kicking his caveman b#tt to the caveman curb. Shunning them is the correct answer to their sense of entitlement.
Don’t be shocked though, to find out that many of them are very knowledgeable about what is wrong with them. Many become psychologists in an effort to become even better at manipulating. They know what they’re doing. They just feel that they are entitled. And they will continue to try to rationalize and justify their behaviors. So it won’t be an easy or a straight path to unveiling evil, but it’s totally worthwhile. I can’t wait for the day when they run out of places to hide.
Thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts. Stay safe.
You know what I would love to see someone investigate?
The number of psychopaths becoming gurus.(this is after reading Jill’s LOA article)
Especially new age, or eastern spirituality gurus.
(I have been involved in both)
The former always blame the victim…poor? it is because your mind is unhealthy, or you are a bad person.
The latter, sees “karma” in your abuse..(karma is basically loa) and encourages you to love your abuser as your greatest teacher..blablah
Now as I am writing this, I am realizing this may be the definition of “antichrist”…and all the world’s religions have it with one exception.
Christianity is unique, (as was pointed out somewhere here I think) in assuming the VICTIM IS INNOCENT. Instead of imputing guilt..