My Theory of Human Evolution: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

From Entertainment Weekly:

EW: Are you religious?

Jodie Foster: No. I’m an atheist. But I absolutely love religions and the rituals.

Perhaps everyone enjoys rituals. (Even scientists.) It’s a curious enjoyment because rituals are arbitrary and without useful result. No other species has rituals. One sign of the pleasure we derive from rituals is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD takes many forms; one is excessive dependence on rituals, such as a need to do certain things, such as counting, tapping, or aligning, so often that it seriously interferes with being productive. The BBC program Am I Normal? did an excellent episode on OCD (no longer available). If you think of OCD (some forms) as addiction to rituals, the capacity of rituals to provide pleasure — or at least reduce anxiety — is clear.

Why do we enjoy rituals? I’ve already written about Christmas. Rituals and ceremonies, like Christmas and other gift-giving holidays, are a growth medium for fine craftsmanship. They encourage desire for fancy things — Christmas cards, special food, music, art, the special tools used in Japanese tea ceremonies. (Maybe the word fancy was invented to describe just these things, it fits so well.) They help support the highly-skilled artists and artisans who are advancing the state of their art. You can read my whole theory of human evolution here.

11 Replies to “My Theory of Human Evolution: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”

  1. The great evolutionary advantage that humans evolved was intelligence. Understanding the world implies that we will be successful, while being confused implies that we will be in trouble. Rituals simplify a complex world. You don’t have to worry about what to do. If you follow the ritual you will be guaranteed success. For information processors in a complicated world this is an oasis of calm.

  2. Maybe “superstitious behavior” is too different from your definition of “ritual”, but here goes anyway.
    I’ve heard of experiments with birds in which they would be rewarded randomly at various rates. If you do it too often or too rarely, they don’t change their behavior. But if it’s around 1/4 of the time, then they start to guess “something I did got me a reward”, and they train themselves to do weird things (which, of course, get them the reward 1/4 of the time), such as stand on one leg.
    The punchline is that baseball players hit the ball about 1/4 of the time.

    Seth: B. F. Skinner wrote a paper about “superstition” in pigeons that was later shown to be all wrong (by Staddon and Simmelhag). The 1/4 stuff I’ve never heard before and animal learning is my professional field.

  3. Humans are not the only animal who perform rituals. My dog will not lie down to sleep without first spinning around 3 times before plopping down into her chosen spot for a snooze. It’s a consistent behavior she’s exhibited since she was a puppy. It’s like she’s screwing herself into place to be more snug before nodding off.

    I once had a cat who had a very set routine for cleaning herself. She ALWAYS cleaned her entire right arm before licking anything else. Always.

    Seth: Okay, let me restrict the term “ritual” to stuff that is transmitted from one person/animal to another.

  4. Now I’m enjoying your linked paper on human evolution and trade/specialization. But again, you say that only humans do X – this time, trade – and there is evidence that some animals do trade. E.g.,

    In general, a lot of people who said that “only humans do x” have found that some animals also do the it, even if in simplified and attenuated form. That would suggest that the evolution of X would have been easier because there was a pre-existing starting point for evolution to work on.

    Seth: The link isn’t much support for the idea that animals trade:

    Georgia State’s Sarah Brosnan, assistant professor of psychology, and research scientist Michael Beran conducted a study to see if chimpanzees spontaneously bartered foods among each other, using tokens which represented those foods. While results indicated that the animals were cognitively able to understand trade, without enforcement from human experimenters, trade disappeared.

  5. “Humans are not the only animal who perform rituals.”

    I agree! See: MATING rituals, for example.

    Seth: Good point. I should have said humans are the only animals with learned rituals.

  6. As Joe says – just look at animals when the hormones are pumping! My interest in this evolutionary aspect of rituals is how it plays into that whole can of worms of people getting obese and then trying to fight their way out of it. I’ve been teaching a series of mindfulness habits and after having a quick browse through your main article, it occurred to me whether I’m just getting people involved in mindfulness or just giving them another ritual to follow?
    Would you see mindfulness types of training as a case of one unhealthy ritual (scoffing too much food or starving and binging) with a slightly more healthy one of being aware of your hunger and nipping it in the bud. I can see I’m going to have to dig deeper into your work.

  7. Like Nancy pointed out, OCD is not an addiction. I have subclinical OCD and I’d gladly be rid of it. Lack of anxiety (which is as good as it gets) is not addictive.

    If I was to give it an evolutionary explanation I’d say those who worried about having bolted their dwelling properly before going to bed had a slightly higher survival rate than others.

    Seth: “bolted their dwelling”? Locks were invented recently. OCD takes many forms. In one case, a person with OCD did not feel comfortable unless everything in his house was coated with a fine layer of confectioner’s sugar.

  8. For what it’s worth, I don’t really like special rituals. I generally find them boring. Even brushing my teeth at night is something I have to take extra pains to get myself to do. I may have (undiagnosed) ADHD, which might have something to do with it.

    I’ve heard of various psychological benefits to rituals, so it would be nice to enjoy them.

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