Out In The Open

How painful rituals bring people together

An anthropology professor steps out of his comfort zone to walk on fire.
A man walks through burning charcoal as he participates in the traditional ritual called "Lianhuo", or "fire walking", in Pan'an county, Zhejiang province November 25, 2013. Lianhuo, a traditional local ritual which was listed in 2005 as an intangible cultural heritage of the province, usually requires dozens of men to walk past burning charcoal or firewood barefooted, as a way to ward off evil and pray for good fortune. Picture taken November 25, 2013. (Stringer/Reuters)

Dimitri Xygalatas has spent more than ten years trying to figure out why people voluntarily participate in painful rituals.

He tells us about the time he unexpectedly tried fire walking in Mauritius, and what it taught him about why these kinds of rituals persist.

"Performing these painful, intense or stressful rituals increases social bonds between participants. This is why you see several organizations like military groups or university fraternities using pain in order to increase bonding between individuals."