01 Coordination

Rituals across the world often involve synchronized dancing, chanting, and music making. Examples include the famous Maori haka dance adopted by All Blacks as their pre-match routine, Hindu mantras, or simply collective standing up and kneeling during Christian mass. Even outside religious contexts, synchrony remains a powerful tool creating entitative units such as during army marches. While the effects of synchronous coordinated movements on group cohesion were previously well documented, my work focuses on investigating the specific mechanisms facilitating the synchrony effects. I argue that by engaging in coordinated movement, chanting, and music making, our group identities are forged by synchronous neurophysiological responses, translating into increased coordination outside ritual contexts.


Lang, M., Bahna, V., Shaver, J.H., Reddish, P., & Xygalatas, D. (2017). Sync to Link: Endorphin-mediated Effects of Synchrony on Cooperation. Biolgical Psychology, 127, 191-197.
Lang, M., Shaw, D. J., Reddish, P., Wallot, S., Mitkidis, P., and Xygalatas, D. (2016). Lost in the Rhythm: Effects of Rhythm on Subsequent Interpersonal Coordination. Cognitive Science, 40 (7), 1797-1815.

02 Prosociality

Group living presents people with all sorts of challenges that require higher-level cognitive coordination. Consider a typical stag hunt scenario: if Frank and Jane decide to go for a risky stag hunt, how can they be sure that one of them will not run away in a critical moment during the hunt? How can we build trust within our communities that allow us to reap the benefits of mutual cooperation? I argue that ritual behavior evolved as a communication platform affording group coordination by stabilizing a broad scope of conventional indices. Be it it partaking in collective rituals, sacrificing pigs to ancestors, or piercing one's body with hundreds of needles, rituals use conventional costly indices of commitment together with indices of group unity to facilitate stable and reliable communication that serves as a basis for cooperative cultural niches (mostly religions) . The rigidity and stereotypy of rituals help to stabilize and perpetuate cooperative niches while internalizing normative behavioral patterns in ritual participants. This can prove useful in various cooperative dilemmas where internalized norms activated through contextual factors (sacred cues) afford complex coordination patterns.


Shaver, J. H., DiVietro, S., Lang, M., & Sosis, R. (In press). Costs Do Not Explain Variance in Trust Among Secular Groups. Journal of Cognition and Culture.
Xygalatas, D., Kotherová, S., Maňo, P., Kundt, R., Cigán, J., Kundtová Klocová, E., & Lang. M. (2017). Big Gods in Small Places: The Random Allocation Game in Mauritius. Religion, Brain and Behavior. E-pub before print.
Pazhoohi, F., Lang, M., Xygalatas, D., & Grammer, K. (2016). Religious Veiling as a Mate-Guarding Strategy: Effects of Environmental Pressures on Cultural Practices. Evolutionary Psychological Science, Epub before print.
Xygalatas, D, & Lang, M. (2017). Religion and prosociality. In N. Clements (Ed.), Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks. Religion: Mental Religion. (pp. 119–133). Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA.
Lang, M., Mitkidis, P., Kundt, R., Nichols, A., Krajčíková, L., & Xygalatas, D. (2016). Music as a Sacred Cue: Effects of Religious Music on Moral Behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 7 (814), 1-13.

03 Anxiety

Humans live in complex world defined by environmental uncertainties and stresses that need to be controlled in order to thrive. Possessing a suit of cognitive and physiological adaptations such as anxiety, people are motivated to exercise precaution and try to regain control over threats and adversities. However, whenever this control cannot be attained by functional means such as during wars, untreatable diseases, or risky hunting, anxiety increases internal disorder that threatens to destabilize the human complex cognitive system. I argue that by engaging in stereotypical and predictable behavioral and verbal patterns, that is to say by engaging in ritualized behavior, people decrease their prediction error and minimize internal entropy when facing uncontrollable situations. Carrying out low-entropy stereotypical actions may help regain a feeling of control over uncertain situations that might, in turn, result in anxiety alleviation.


Lang, M., & Sosis, R. (2017). Uncertain Malinowski: The Importance of Pre-ritual Stress Data. Current Anthropology, 52 (2), pp. 276:278.
Lang, M., & Kundt, R. (2016). Can Predictive Coding Explain Past Experiences? Religion, Brain, & Behavior, 7 (1), pp. 71-73.
Krátký, J., Lang, M., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., and Xygalatas, D. (2016). Anxiety and Ritualization: Can Attention Discriminate Compulsion from Routine? Communicative & Integrative Biology, 9 (3), e1174799.
Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., and Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 25 (14), 1892–1897.

Popular media:

Interview on Verge of Discovery
Coverage by Discover Magazine
Popular summary for anxiety.org


analytical skills


2016 -

Human Evolutionary Biology

I'm a postdoctoral fellow working with Joseph Henrich on The Evolution of Religion and Morality Project under CERC. This project collected random allocation game and dictator game data across 15 small-scale societies together with a suit of religiosity questions to test the effects of belief in omniscient and punitive moralizing gods on cooperation.

2014 - 2016


I was a graduate researcher under the supervision of Dimitris Xygalatas working in Experimental Anthropology lab. During my stay, I was developing physiological and sociometric measures of ritual behavior as well as collecting experimentaldata in Mauritius.

2011 - 2014


During my work in Laboratory for the Experimental Study of Religions (LEVYNA) I was trained in using experimental methods to tackle long-standing questions in religious studies such as whether religion promotes prosociality. I also developed a solid basis for signal processing, statistical analyses, and dynamical systems analysis.

2005 - 2016

Study of Religions

I obtained my bachelor, master, and Ph.D. degrees at the Department for the Study of Religions under the supervision of Aleš Chalupa. I was trained as a classical religious scholar with focus on early Christianity and new religious movements. I also obtained a bachelor degree from media studies.


I am a religious scholar by training, psychologist by methodology, anthropologist by interests, and eclectic scientist at heart. My work lies at the intersection between the humanities and the cognitive and behavioral sciences, combining laboratory experiments with field studies to explore the effects of ritual on the individual and group level. I use physiological measurements, motion capture, surveys, machine-learning algorithms, and linear and nonlinear analyses to understand the evolution and function of the basic human social act.

Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University,
11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA


© 2017 by Martin Lang