Applying Signaling Theory to Traditional Cultural Rituals

Human Nature 18 (4):295-312 (2007)
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The branch of evolutionary theory known as signaling theory attempts to explain various forms of communication. Social scientists have explained many traditional rituals as forms of communication that promote cooperative social relationships among participants. Both evolutionists and social scientists have realized the importance of trust for the formation and maintenance of cooperative social relationships. These factors have led to attempts to apply signaling theory to traditional cultural rituals in various ways. This paper uses the traditional ritual of mumming in small Newfoundland fishing villages to evaluate alternative hypotheses about the connection between rituals, communication, trust, and cooperation. Mumming is found to be most consistent with the hypothesis that it is a ritual of trust wherein participants take a specific type of risk: the risk of harm at the hands of other participants. Individuals who take this risk actively signal their trust. Conversely, individuals who restrain themselves from inflicting harm on other participants actively signal their trustworthiness



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