Accidental Trial by Fire

An Aeon piece by Dimitris Xygalatas has been making the rounds describing how hazing and other rituals involving sacrifice or pain, physical or psychological, often serves as a sort of prosocial glue that keeps groups together and functioning well. Xygalatas goes as far as to measure the heart rates of people involved in a fire walking ritual, and finds that he can predict how closely related two people are in their social network — e.g. spouse vs. close friend vs. stranger — just by patterns in their heart rates throughout the night. This insight helps explain vast swaths of social behavior, from fraternity hazing to why people go to concerts. Do read the whole piece for better context and more convincing evidence.

What struck me while reading the piece is how many of these prosocial rituals are almost accidental in our modern lives. We seem to be forming strong social bonds with strangers in a random, haphazard fashion rather an with the people we’re likely to have extended contact with — e.g. family or local community members. I can really only speak to my own experience here, so I started listing the various painful “rituals” I’ve participated in to get a feel how true my intuition was. I’ll list mine below, but I encourage you to list yours in the comments.

  • Enduring long (3 hours +) trips and spending too much money to play in Magic: the Gathering tournaments, often missing other important obligations as a result.
  • Enduring less long trips and spending even more money to play in paintball tournaments, often missing other important obligations as a result. Also, getting shot is physically painful and the most painful occasions are more likely to occur in these tournaments.
  • Graduate school – especially core courses and qualifying exams.
  • Concerts – it’s hot, smoky, hard to see, uncomfortable seating, often had to travel a long distance, etc.
  • Various outdoor activities (but only sometimes) – camping, fishing, etc. At their worst, it’s way too hot or way too cold, it’s unpleasantly wet, and there’s sometimes an element of danger. Sometimes they require quite a trip too.
  • A small underground boxing club in high school
  • High school itself. School itself.

What stands out to me about this list is the number of items that are or are attached to some hobby that requires time, money, and travel and aren’t typically things you do with your family and non-hobby friends – how many people are willing to travel for hours to get shot at with paint filled pellets or play a card game? But looking at the list, a smaller proportion of them have the accidental nature than I expected. Traveling and enduring pain for hobbies that few in your family/community participate in does seem like a stereotypically modern behavior. Is anyone aware of any evidence one way or another?

Another thing I noticed is how many are associated with school. School is traumatic in a lot of ways (raise your hand if you’ve ever had a nightmare about somehow making a huge mistake at school), and ever notice how so many people feel such a strong connection to their alma mater? Perhaps the modern social order is held together by school and hobbies.

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3 thoughts on “Accidental Trial by Fire

  1. I think there’s an element of stockholm syndrome at play in which we bond over even the negative aspects of past rituals (regardless of the pro/con ratio) in order to justify it post-hoc, and also to not have to be confronted with the mentally taxing and anti-social dilemma of suggesting a Better Way.

    I actually think about this a lot with regards to sentiment in general — i.e. I’m faced my entire life with the nagging question/doubt as to why I feel positive sentiment towards things that happened in the past at all, when I know rationally that when I was in the moment, to varying degrees, I was suffering. It’s part of the survival strategy in forming an identity at all that encourages forward momentum. or something.

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    • Xygalatas talks about the stockholm syndrome aspect of this in his article, though he doesn’t mention the pain of thinking about the better way – I think that’s a good point.

      I think your second paragraph hints at a common social failure mode of rationalists, intellectuals, and highly analytical people of all stripes. They look at the various pieces social glue, in the form of these shared negative experiences, and see no reason why they should matter so much to their identity, so they jettison it. As a result, they unwittingly increase their level of social isolation. I know I’m guilty of this.

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