Hierarchical Organization of Segmentation in Non-Functional Action Sequences


  • Kristoffer Laigaard Nielbo Aarhus University
  • Uffe Schjoedt Aarhus University
  • Jesper Sørensen Aarhus University




Ritual behavior, action perception, hierarchical alignment, expectation modulation, resource depletion


Both folk and scientific taxonomies of behavior distinguish between instrumental and ritual behavior. Recent studies indicate that behaviors dominated by ritual features tend to increase cognitive load by focusing attentional and working memory resources on low-level perceptual details and psycho-physics. In contrast to the general consensus on anthropology and the study of religion, one study did not find any modulation effect of expectations (e.g., cultural information or priors) on cognitive load. It has, therefore, been suggested that the increase reflects a perceptual mechanism that drives categorization of ritual behavior. The present study investigated how an increase in cognitive load elicited by ritual behavior can influence hierarchically-related representations of actions and if expectation can modulate such hierarchical action representations. The study found that hierarchical alignment during segmentation of actions with ritual features was reduced in comparison to instrumental actions but that expectations only vaguely modulate this reduction. It is argued that these results lend support to the resource depletion model ritual behavior.

Author Biographies

Kristoffer Laigaard Nielbo, Aarhus University

Religion Cognition and Culture, MINDLab, Aarhus University

Uffe Schjoedt, Aarhus University

Religion Cognition & Culture MINDLab Aarhus University

Jesper Sørensen, Aarhus University

Religion Cognition & Culture MINDLab Aarhus University


Bartlett, M. S. 1937. “Properties of sufficiency and statistical tests.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A-Mathematical and Physical Sciences 160(901), 268–282. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspa.1937.0109

Bauer, P. J., and J. M. Mandler. 1990. “Remembering what happened next: Very young children’s recall of event sequences.” In Knowing and Remembering in Young Children, 9–29. Cambridge University Press.

Bell, C. (1998). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

Blakemore, S. J., and J. Decety. 2001. “From the perception of action to the understanding of intention.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2(8): 561–567.

Bloch, M. (1989). Ritual, History and Power: Selected Papers in Anthropology. London: Berg Publishers.

Boyer, P., and P. Liénard. 2006. “Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action Parsing in Developmental, Pathological and Cultural Rituals.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29(6): 595–660. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X06009332

Cheng, P. W. 1997. “From covariation to causation: A causal power theory.” Psychological Review 104(2): 367–405. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.104.2.367

Cheng, P. W., and Novick, L. R. 1992. Covariation in natural causal induction. Psychological Review 99(2): 365–382. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.99.2.365

Dittrich, W. H., and Lea, S. E. G. 1994. Visual perception of intentional motion. Perception 23(3), 253–268. http://dx.doi.org/10.1068/p230253

Frazer, S. J. G. 2000 (1890). The Collected Works of J.G. Frazer: The Golden Bough. London: Routledge.

Gopnik, A., C. Glymour, D. M. Sobel, L. E. Schulz, T. Kushnir and D. Danks. 2004. “A Theory of Causal Learning in Children: Causal Maps and Bayes Nets. Psychological review 111(1): 3–31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.111.1.3

Gopnik, A., and J. B. Tenenbaum 2007. “Bayesian Networks, Bayesian Learning and Cognitive Development.” Developmental Science 10(3): 281–287. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00584.x

Gopnik, A., and L. Schulz. 2004. “Mechanisms of theory formation in young children.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8(8): 371–377. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2004.06.005

Guthrie, S. E. 1993. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hanson, C., and W. Hirst. 1989. “On the Representation of Events: A Study of Orientation, Recall, and Recognition.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 118(2): 136–147. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.118.2.136

Hard, B.M., G. Recchia, and B. Tversky. 2011. “The shape of action.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 140(4): 586. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0024310

Hard, B. M., S. C. Lozano, and B. Tversky. 2006. “Hierarchical encoding of behavior: translating perception into action.” Journal of Experimental Psychology. General 135(4): 588–608. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.135.4.588

Heider, F. 1944. “Social Perception and Phenomenal Causality.” Psychological Review 51(6): 358–374. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0055425

Heider, F., and M. Simmel. 1944. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57(2): 243–259. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1416950

Holm, S. 1979. “A simple sequentually rejective multiple test procedure.” Scandinavian Journal of Statisitcs 6(2): 65–70.

Humphrey, C., and J. Laidlaw. 1994. The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory of Ritual Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Huxley, J. 1914. “The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus).” The Journal of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 53: 253–292.

Kreinath, J., J. A. M. Snoek, and M. Stausberg. 2008. Theorizing Rituals: Classical Topics, Theoretical Approaches, Analytical Concepts (Numen Book Series). Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Kurby, C., and J. Zacks. 2008. “Segmentation in the Perception and Memory of Events.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(2): 72–79. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2007.11.004

Kushnir, T., A. Gopnik, L. Schulz and D. Danks. 2003. “Inferring Hidden Causes.” Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 699–703.

Leslie, A. M., and S. Keeble. 1987. “Do Six-Month-Old Infants Perceive Causality?” Cognition 25(2): 265–288. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0010-0277(87)80006-9

Lienard, P., and P. Boyer. 2006. Whence collective rituals? A cultural selection model of ritualized behavior. American Anthropologist 108(4): 814–827. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/aa.2006.108.4.814

Malinowski, B. 2008 (1922). Argonauts Of The Western Pacific. Malinowski Press.

Mandler, J. M. 1992. “How to Build a Baby: II. Conceptual Primitives.” Psychological Review 99(4): 587–604. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.99.4.587

McClelland, J. L., and R. M. Thompson. 2007. “Using Domain-General Principles to Explain Childrens Reasoning Abilities.” Developmental Science 10(3): 333–356. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00586.x

Michotte, A. 1963. The Perception of Causality. New York: Basic Books. Newtson, D. 1973. “Attribution and the Unit of Perception of Ongoing Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28(1): 28–38.

Newtson, D., G. Engquist and J. Bois. 1977. “The Objective Basis of Behavior Units.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35(12): 847–862. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0035584

Nielbo, K. L., D. M. Braxton and A. Upal. 2012. “Computing Religion: A New Tool in the Multilevel Analysis of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24(3): 267–290. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/157006812X635709

Nielbo, K. L., and J. Sørensen. 2011. “Spontaneous Processing of Functional and Non-Functional Action Sequences.” Religion, Brain and Behavior 1(1): 18–30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2010.550722

Nielbo, K. L., and J. Sørensen. In press. “Prediction Error in Functional and Non-functional Action Sequences—A Computational Exploration of Ritual and Ritualized Event Processing. Journal of Cognition and Culture.

Otgaar, H., H. Alberts and L. Cuppens. 2012. “How Cognitive Resources Alter our Perception of the Past: Ego Depletion Enhances the Susceptibility to Suggestion.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 26(1): 159–163. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/acp.1810

Rappaport, R. A. 1977. Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Rappaport, R. A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511814686

Schjødt, U., J. Sørensen, K.L. Nielbo, D. Xygalatas, P. Mitkidis and J. Bulbulia. In press. “Cognitive Resource Depletion in Religious Interactions.” Religion, Brain and Behavior.

Scholl, B. J. and K. Nakayama. 2002. “Causal Capture: Contextual Effects on the Perception of Collision Events.” Psychological Science 13(6): 493. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00487

Scholl, B. J. and P. D. Tremoulet. 2000. “Perceptual Causality and Animacy.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(8): 299–309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01506-0

Shapiro, S.S., and M.B. Wilk. 1965. “An Analysis of Variance Test for Normality.” Biometrika 52(3/4): 591–611. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2333709

Smith, W. R. 1972 (1889). Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions. New York: Schocken Books.

Sperber, D. 1975. Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge University Press.

Sørensen, J. 2007. “Acts That Work: A Cognitive Approach to Ritual Agency.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19(3–4): 281–300.

Staal, F. 1979. “The Meaninglessness of Ritual.” Numen 26(1), 2–22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156852779X00244

Staal, Frits. 1990. Rules Without Meaning: Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences. New York: Peter Lang.

Tambiah, S. J. 1990. Magic, Science and Religion and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, V. W. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine.

Watanabe, J. M., and B. B. Smuts. 1999. “Explaining Religion without Explaining It Away: Trust, Truth, and the Evolution of Cooperation in Roy A. Rappaport’s The Obvious Aspects of Ritual.” American Anthropologist 101(1): 98–112. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/aa.1999.101.1.98

Wilder, D. A. 1978a. “Predictability of Behaviors, Goals, and Unit of Perception.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 4(4): 604–607. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/014616727800400422

Wilder, D. A. 1978b. “Effect of Predictability on Units of Perception and Attribution.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 4(2): 281–284. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/014616727800400222

Wolpert, D. M. and J. R. Flanagan. 2001. Motor prediction. Current Biology 11(18): 729. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0960-9822(01)00432-8

Zacks, J. M. 2004. “Using movement and intentions to understand simple events.” Cognitive Science 28(6): 979–1008. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog2806_5

Zacks, J. M, and B. Tversky. 2001. “Event structure in perception and conception.” Psychological Bulletin 127(1): 3–21. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.127.1.3

Zacks, J. M, B. Tversky and G. Iyer. 2001. “Perceiving, Remembering, and Communicating Structure in Events.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 130(1): 29–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.130.1.29

Zacks, J. M., and J. Q. Sargent. 2010. “Event Perception: A Theory and Its Application to Clinical Neuroscience.” Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory 53: 253–299. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0079-7421(10)53007-X

Zacks, J. M., N. K. Speer, K. M. Swallow, T. S. Braver, and J. R. Reynolds. 2007. “Event Perception: A Mind-Brain Perspective.” Psychological Bulletin 133(2): 273–293. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.2.273

Zor, R., H. Hermesh, H. Szechtman and D. Eilam. 2009. “Turning order into chaos through repetition and addition of elementary acts in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).” World Journal of Biological Psychiatry 10(4–2): 480–487.

Zor, R., H. Keren, H. Szechtman, J. Mort and D. Eilam. 2009. “Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: A Disorder of Pessimal (Non-Functional) Motor Behavior.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 120: 288–298. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0447.2009.01370.x



How to Cite

Nielbo, K. L., Schjoedt, U., & Sørensen, J. (2012). Hierarchical Organization of Segmentation in Non-Functional Action Sequences. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 1(1), 71–97. https://doi.org/10.1558/jcsr.v1i1.71




Most read articles by the same author(s)