Why do human societies have so many taboos, defined here as culturally prohibited activities? In
this paper, I offer a naturalistic account of the origin and transmission of taboos from an
evolutionary anthropological perspective. Drawing from the extensive literature in cognitive
science and cultural evolution, I argue that taboos may arise from our tendency to retrospectively
attribute causes to misfortunes due to a deterministic worldview, and the imperfect transmission
of taboos often leads to the loss of their original utilitarian rationale, making them resemble mere
cultural conventions. While this account does not explain all cultural prohibitions in human
societies, it provides valuable insights into the psychological and social mechanisms by which
many taboos are generated in a bottom-up fashion. Towards the end of the paper, I offer a few
implications on the proposed account of taboos and specify some testable predictions that merit
Taboos are ubiquitous in human social life, and play a particularly prominent role in traditional,
small-scale societies where they serve as powerful tools to regulate human action. Though the
concept of taboo in the sense of prohibited human action probably existed since the dawn of
humanity itself, etymologically speaking the word “taboo” originated from the Polynesian term
tabu which roughly means “to forbid” certain human activities (Steiner 1956/2013). In the
anthropological literature, taboos are often associated with religious practices, carrying a sense of
“sacred prohibition” (Lisiansky, 1814; Tregear, 1891), though Radcliffe-Brown (1939/2014)
points out that loosely speaking, the concept of “taboo” generally applies to any kinds of
prohibition, and as such may span diverse domains from diet to ritual.
From an anthropological perspective, two features of taboos in human societies stand out.
First, they are numerous. A simple keyword search with “taboo” OR “taboos” in Human
Relation Area Files (a digitized, comprehensive ethnographic database) returns 13187 paragraph
hits in 2001 documents from 329 cultures, meaning on average each ethnography mentions
taboos more than 6 times, comparable with the frequency of “magic” (16996 paragraph hits in
2168 documents from 332 cultures). In Ruud's (1960) study of Malagasy taboos, for example, he
identified over 600 prohibitions in virtually all aspects of life, from pregnancy and birth to tomb
construction. Comparative studies also show that taboos are prevalent in both rural and urban
settings, though rural areas typically have more taboos than their urban counterparts (Sharifah
Zahhura et al., 2012). Secondly, many of these taboos are, prima facie, nonsensical from a
modern, scientific standpoint. Why, for instance, should menstruating women be prohibited from
consuming perfectly nutritious fruits (Meyer-Rochow, 2009)? And why should religious leaders
be prohibited from engaging in sexual activity (Sobo & Bell, 2001)? These taboo beliefs and the
associated behaviors are also puzzling from an evolutionary perspective: taboos often incurs a
non-trivial fitness cost (Singh & Henrich, 2020) and therefore should be selected against if they
are not objectively true1.
As a classic anthropological topic, taboos have received much scholarly attention by
early theorists (Frazer 1890; Radcliffe-Brown 1939/2014; Durkheim 1912/2008; Freud
1 In general, true beliefs confer fitness advantages while untrue beliefs typically incurs some costs. Therefore, the
fact that humans can possess untrue beliefs is often described as a puzzle that requires explanation. For a review of
this literature, see McKay & Dennett (2009).
1913/2013), and have been provided various functional, symbolic, and evolutionary
explanations. More generally, the subject of taboo is also often subsumed and analyzed under the
larger umbrella category of “rules” (Köster et al., 2022; Singh et al., 2017) or “norms” (Akintan
et al., 2018; Roest et al., 2018) in human societies. Specifically, psychologists and cognitive
scientists have attempted to address the question of why certain cultural practices take particular
forms (Fessler & Navarrete, 2003; Miton et al., 2015; Singh, 2017) and evolutionary theorists
have examined the potential individual and/or group level benefits conferred by these practices
confer (Richerson et al., 2016; Singh et al., 2017).
While these previous efforts have achieved considerable progress in shedding light on the
form and function of various types of taboo beliefs and practices, they do not always provide a
sufficiently detailed account of how taboos are originally generated and how they are transmitted
over time. In this paper, I offer an account of the origin of taboos based on individual causal
cognition and the transmission of taboos based on cultural evolutionary theory, highlighting
some previously underappreciated features of taboos. I argue that many taboo beliefs arise from
error-prone, retrospective causal attribution, with the causal understanding often lost during the
cultural transmission process. The resulting population level outcomes are that 1) there is a
tendency for the number of cultural prohibitions to increase over time and 2) there is substantial
vagueness and heterogeneity in individuals’ understanding of the worldly consequences of taboo
violation. Although some of the key components of my argument are not entirely novel, the
present paper proposes a comprehensive verbal mechanism for how taboos emerge and are
transmitted, and effectively integrating existing ideas and knowledge in cognitive science and
cultural evolution to better make sense of taboos in human societies.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. First, I will briefly lay out and examine the
existing accounts of taboos, then introduce my account of the origin and transmission of taboo
beliefs and practices in full detail, drawing extensively from the literature on causal cognition
and cultural evolution theory. Finally, I discuss the explanatory scope, limitations, and
implications of my account, and suggest directions for further studies.
Before proceeding, I shall clarify a few points. First, throughout this paper the word
“taboo” will be used in a broad sense which covers both sacred prohibitions and mundane
actions that one is discouraged from performing, which may or may not carry moral significance.
In contrast to some approaches where morality is an indispensable feature of taboo beliefs and
practices (Tetlock et al., 2000), this broad definition takes a utilitarian stance and focuses on the
kind of cultural prohibitions whose transgression is believed to cause some (real or imagined)
worldly harm. Second, my account does not exclude other theories of taboos, but rather
complements them by focusing on their origination and transmission. Lastly, this account applies
only to taboos that spontaneously emerge in the population in a bottom-up fashion; taboos that
are conceived and implemented top-down (e.g., legal prohibitions) would be outside of the
explanatory scope of my theory. These cases will nonetheless be used for comparisons to
highlight some of the limitations of my theory in the discussion.
2. Existing theories on taboos
In this section, I provide a non-exhaustive review of the sociological, psychological, and
anthropological literature on taboos. Note that different academic disciplines tend to offer
explanations for taboos at different levels of analysis, and as such they are often not mutually
2.1. Taboos as Magic
The pioneering anthropologist Edward Tylor (1865) first hinted at the association between magic
and taboos in his Researches into the Early History of Mankind where he discussed the “food
prejudices of savage races”, pointing out that the Dayak hunters were said to avoid consuming
flesh from slow-going and cowardly animals, though he never used the word “taboo”. It was
another early British anthropologist, James Frazer, who explicitly stated the relationship between
magic and taboos in his magnum opus, The Golden Bough where the laws of sympathetic magic
(i.e., objects that are similar or in contact may exert influence on each other) are formulated
(Frazer, 1890). In this encyclopedia-style examination of magical practices across the world,
Frazer refers to taboos as “negative magic” and devotes four entire chapters to the analysis of
various types of taboos. For Frazer, taboos follow the same general principles as other magical
practices. In fact, one way to classify magical practices is by the form of their precepts:
“…it is to be observed that the system of sympathetic magic is not merely composed of
positive precepts; it comprises a very large number of negative precepts, that is,
prohibitions. It tells you not merely what to do, but also what to leave undone. The
positive precepts are charms: the negative precepts are taboos. In fact the whole doctrine
of taboo, or at all events a large part of it, would seem to be only a special application of
sympathetic magic, with its two great laws of similarity and contact.” (Frazer 1890, p. 52)
Here, Frazer is very explicit on the explanatory power of sympathetic magic in understanding
human taboos. Note the implicit assumption here is that the exact consequences of taboo
violations are known, as they can be derived directly from the laws of sympathy and contagion.
Among the Ainos of Saghalien, for example, a pregnant woman may not spin nor twist ropes for
two months before her delivery, because it is believed that if she did so the child’s guts might be
entangled like the thread (Frazer 1890, p. 55). Another feature of Frazer’s account of taboos is
that sacredness is unnecessary; surely, there is nothing sacred about twisting ropes. Taboos,
according to Frazer, are a result of our psychological tendency based on sympathetic magic
principles (Steiner 1956/2013, p. 94-97) to prevent undesirable outcomes from occurring, and as
such are mostly instrumental: the reason people avoid certain actions is because the consequence
of these actions are well-recognized (or “imagined” in Frazer’s term), and the people are
behaving sensibly given such beliefs.
More generally, taboos may be viewed as cultural products of evolved psychological
intuitions. In Fessler and Navarrete (2003)’s extensive study of food taboos, meat items are much
more likely than plants to be “tabooed”, which is suggested to be the result of the fact that meat
is much more susceptible to microbial contamination and therefore triggers the emotion of
disgust. Here no magic principle is explicitly invoked; rather, our evolved psychological
predisposition to think of meat as disgusting makes them better “candidates” for things to taboo.
Similarly, Douglas (1966) theorizes that the reason certain animals are prohibited to consume
because they are “impure” and do not fit into normal categories. Pigs, for example, were
prohibited food items for the Israelites because of their ambiguous status as an animal: they share
the cloven hoof of the ungulates but do now chew cud (The Old Testament is explicit on this
reasoning of pork prohibition. See Leviticus 11:1).
2.2. Taboos as social control
In sociology, taboos are sometimes explained as a form of social control (Lumley, 1925;
Whiting, 1967). Like many other functional explanations of taboos, these accounts emphasize
the effect of taboos at the societal level, both intended and unintended (Isajiw 1968/2013). More
specifically, this explanation states that taboo objects and actions are often significant for social
order and therefore their existence in societies is due to their effect in maintaining such social
order (Böker, 2010). Sigmund Freud, for example, famously analyzed incest taboos this way; for
Freud, humans have an innate desire to engage in sexual activity with their family members, and
prohibitions against intra-familial sexual relations thus set the necessary conditions for the
emergence of kinship and moral conscience (Freud 1913/2013). In the original Polynesian
context, ordinary people were prohibited from touching a chief because it was believed that
doing so would compromise his mana, or sacred power (Lambek, 2015), which has been
interpreted as a way to consolidate political authority and social hierarchy (Steiner 1956/2013, p.
37-39). Here we see “taboo as magic” hiding in the background: the idea that mana may be lost
by human contact is an example of classic Frazerian sympathetic magic. We could therefore say
that psychologically, the plausibility that human contact compromising mana is maintained by
magical thinking, yet at the societal level it functions as a form of control.
2.3. Taboos as cultural adaptions
For evolutionarily minded researchers, taboos are frequently interpreted as adaptive, in the sense
that they confer fitness benefits either at the individual level or the societal level (Lepowsky,
1985; Placek et al., 2017). Some anthropologically prominent taboos have been re-interpreted in
this way: incest avoidance, for example, has been explained as the result of an evolved, adaptive
psychological mechanism that reduces inbreeding (Lieberman et al., 2003; Lieberman & Lobel,
2012). Other scholars focus more on the adaptive benefits at the societal level (and thus can be
viewed as a special form of functionalism): Johannes (1978), for instance, suggests that taboos
on certain fishing practices and dietary restrictions serve as effective tools for managing fish
resources among the indigenous peoples in Oceania. In the burgeoning field of cultural
evolution, taboos are often viewed as adaptive, culturally transmitted information. An illustrative
and widely cited study is Henrich and Henrich’s (2010) analysis of Fijian food taboos where they
argue that these taboos protect pregnant women and their fetuses from dangerous marine toxins,
which is used to demonstrate our psychological capacity to extract adaptive beliefs and practices
through social learning, as individuals with adaptive beliefs and practices are more likely to be
copied. Similarly, Harris (2012) proposes that the Israelites’ pork avoidance was a result of an
implicit cost-benefit analysis (in contrast with the psychological explanation as discussed in
section 2.1.): the early stages of agricultural development in the Middle East caused significant
deforestation which destroyed pigs’ natural niche, and as a result raising pigs became too costly
and not worth the benefit from an ecological and nutritional perspective.
3. Taboos as a result of promiscuous causal attribution and imperfect
In all the above accounts, the emphasis is usually either on the form (i.e., what are the
characteristics of taboos?) or the function (what are taboos for in human societies?). In contrast,
how individual taboos are generated and transmitted is typically a secondary concern. Here, I
provide a hitherto neglected mechanism for the generation of taboos and the transmission of
taboo beliefs and practices based on individual causal inference and imperfect cultural
transmission. To do so I will first introduce the psychological tendency of explanation-seeking
under a deterministic worldview, and then outline a process via which a taboo belief comes into
existence and gets transmitted in the population.
3.1. There are no accidents – a deterministic worldview and explanation-seeking
Contemporary psychological research has firmly established that humans have a natural
tendency to seek explanations, which serves to facilitate causal inference and inductive reasoning
(Frazier, Gelman, and Wellman 2009; Lombrozo 2006; Bender 2020). Generally, we are more
likely to seek explanations when unexpected outcomes happen (Isaacs, 1930; Pyszczynski &
Greenberg, 1987; Weiner, 1985), when we encounter concrete problems to be solved
(Chouinard, 2007), and when disasters and misfortunes happen (Raudvere, 2020; Singh, 2021).
As Barrett and Lanman (2008) point out, though humans may not have a urge to explain
everything in the world around them (indeed, doing so would be extremely cognitively
demanding), we do seek explanations for events with significant consequences that affect our
own survival and well-being.
But reality is complex and not all events have straightforward explanations. What
happens when significant events occur without apparent causes? A sizable anthropological
literature reveals that in many societies people have a rather deterministic worldview and are
thus unwilling to leave any aspects of a significant event unexplained: everything happens for a
reason, and there are no accidents (Jansen 1973, p. 39; Lévy-Bruhl 1926/2020; Little 1997;
LePan 1989, p. 165). The Azande, for example, famously explain the collapse of a granary in the
following way (Evans-Pritchard 1937, p.70):
“The Zande knows that the supports were undermined by termites and that people were
sitting beneath the granary to escape the heat and glare of the sun. But he knows besides
that these two events occurred at a precisely similar moment in time and space. It was
due to the action of witchcraft.”
Thus, for Azande there are no accidents, and all aspects of the collapse of the granary — a
significant event — could be explained (Alaszewski, 2015). While the exact timing of the
collapse, which can be described as a random variable in probability theory, may not interest a
modern reader, for the locals these details also demand explanations which they indeed provide.
In a similar vein, Horton (1967) suggests that people in traditional communities often are
unwilling to confess ignorance on such significant events:
“What the anthropologist almost never finds is a confession of ignorance about the
answer to some question which the people themselves consider important. Scarcely ever,
for instance, does he come across a common disease or crop failure whose cause and cure
people say they just do not know.”
The same deterministic attitude also occurs in the religious traditions of more hierarchical
societies. In Christianity, unexpected events are frequently attributed to divine providence (Lüthy
& Palmerino, 2016); in Buddhism “karma” plays a similar role in explaining fortunes and
misfortunes (Harvey, 2012). Even in secular settings we observe a similar kind of deterministic
thinking: in Roman private law, for example, the term “accident” mainly signified something
being determined by fate (C. Jansen, 2016). As such, the deterministic worldview leaves little
room for accidents and chance, and when people seek to explain important worldly events, they
always obtain some explanation. As will be seen, such determinism sets up an important
condition for the emergence of taboos.
3.2. People attribute causes to misfortunes and the incremental increase in putative
The attribution of putative causes to misfortunes follows directly from ordinary causal inference,
which likely conferred adaptive benefits during our evolutionary time (importantly, it does not
need to always correctly identify causality; see Foster and Kokko 2009; Abbott and Sherratt
2011). To fix intuitions, let’s use a hypothetical example where a woman in a community
recently gives birth to a child. Unfortunately, the child dies shortly after birth (a misfortune
occurs). Because of the commitment to a deterministic worldview, the mother, along with her
close friends and relatives, searches for the causes of her child’s death (causal explanation
seeking) and out of the total number of candidate causes, they select the one that is perceived to
be the most likely based on their prior beliefs (inference to the best explanation; prior beliefs
here may be influence by a number of factors, such as idiosyncratic personal experience or the
intuitive plausibility of causal relationships). Suppose after a careful examination of the mother’s
behaviors and diets during pregnancy, the group conclude that it was her consumption of rabbit
meat that caused the death of the infant. Such causal attribution then spreads in the population
(the exact transmission mechanism will be elaborated in the next section), and therefore pregnant
women will avoid consuming rabbit meat during pregnancy. A taboo has been formed.
The first point to note from the above example is on the selection of initial candidates.
The search for causes, though often follows discernable intuitive principles (e.g., like causes
like), can be “promiscuous” in the sense that individuals may lack firm metaphysical
commitments regarding the (im)plausibility of worldly causal relationships. For example, the
same type of misfortune (e.g., infant death) can have a range of explanations, from spirit
aggression (Anonymized, forthcoming) to poor nutrition (Gurven, 2012). In fact, various types
of natural and supernatural explanations often co-exist to account for observed misfortunes such
as illnesses (Legare et al., 2012), suggesting an abundance of candidate causes.
A second point is that such causal attributions are likely to be faulty, i.e., the inferred
cause may not be the real cause of misfortune. Such faulty inferences may be the result of a
number of factors, including 1) our evolved psychological mechanisms that make certain faulty
causal relationships plausible (Hong, 2022; Miton et al., 2015; Singh, 2021), 2) various cognitive
heuristics (e.g., availability bias, recency bias) that may distort our information acquisition,
processing and recall, affecting subsequent causal inferences (Ayton & Fischer, 2004; Hong &
Henrich, 2021; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973), and 3) the intrinsic difficulty of causal inference
(Hong & Henrich, submitted). In real world settings, uncertainty and noise can be substantial,
and individuals typically have very limited data at their disposal. The situation is further
complicated by the fact that humans have a notorious tendency to mistake correlation for
causation (Bleske-Rechek et al., 2015; Kida, 2009; Stanovich, 2009), adding an additional layer
of difficulty in correctly identifying true causes.
Because the putative cause identified is most likely faulty, misfortunes will still occur
even when people comply with the previously identified taboo. In the above toy example, infant
death would still occur at some frequency when no pregnant women consume rabbit meat. The
search for the underlying cause occurs again, only this time rabbit meat consumption is no longer
a candidate. Another cause will be proposed: perhaps it is decided that the mother hammered a
nail during her pregnancy, and now there is a second taboo. We can see how taboos proliferate in
this way: as putative causal actions for misfortunes are established, people will avoid these
actions; yet because misfortunes continue to occur and need to be accounted for, more and more
causes are proposed, leading to a gradual increase in the number of taboos in the community.
In theory, the growth of taboos can be infinite. In practice, however, there can be both
cognitive and social factors that constrain the total number of taboos. For one thing, when taboos
are sufficiently numerous, individuals may lack the cognitive resource to remember all of them.
Additionally, some types of causal explanations are difficult to empirically falsify. Such
explanations mostly involve personalized entities such as ancestral spirits or deities: people may
try their best to beg, please, threaten, or even coerce them for favors (Hong, Slingerland &
Henrich, forthcoming), these personalized entities can be perceived as capricious and may refuse
to cooperate, much like humans (Horton, 1960). Thus, these explanations can always be invoked
despite failures, and no additional causal attribution is needed. Finally, misfortune can also be
attributed to malicious others (e.g., witchcraft; see Singh 2021) rather than past actions of the
protagonists. in such cases, the solution is not to create new taboos but to deal with the presumed
troublemaker directly. This last point also highlights the fact that invoking past personal actions
is only one of the many ways in which people make sense of misfortunes: the Azande, for
example, may attribute a misfortune to witchcraft, incompetence, breach of a taboo, or failure to
observe a moral rule depending on the circumstances (Evans-Pritchard, 1937). Such belief
system that allows for multiple causes for misfortune paradoxically makes the elimination of
existing taboos difficult, as no individual taboo belief can be definitively ruled as false.
3.3. Imperfect transmission of taboo beliefs and practices
3.3.1. Two mechanisms for taboo transmission: copy vs. inference
In principle, the best way to faithfully transmit a taboo is through verbal instruction that specifies
both the prohibited action (e.g., consuming rabbit meat during pregnancy) and the putative
consequences of violation (e.g., the death of the infant), and this is indeed how some taboos are
transmitted and why they are followed (Maggiulli et al., 2022). In many societies, however,
considerable amount of learning2 occurs through observation rather than explicit verbal
instruction (Boyette & Hewlett, 2018; Cheverud & Cavalli-Sforza, 1986; Kline et al., 2013;
Lew-Levy et al., 2017), and the lack of active teaching means that the rationale for why a taboo
is in place may not always be explicitly stated. Assuming rabbit meat is normally consumed by
everyone, a learner may notice that women tend to avoid it when pregnant. How exactly does
learning happen? Two mechanisms have been proposed in the literature. First, the learner may
simply copy the behavior, i.e., avoid rabbit meat during pregnancy, as is often modeled in
cultural evolution (Boyd & Richerson, 1985). In this account, behavioral copying is a rather
basic human psychological instinct that is sometimes described as an automatic, implicit
cognitive process (Heyes 2018). This view is supported by various lines of empirical evidence:
developmental research has shown that imitation occurs very in infancy (Jones, 2009; Meltzoff
& Moore, 1989; Paulus et al., 2011), and studies on adults show that people often favor
straightforward copying based on certain cues rather than conscious deliberation (Henrich 2016,
p. 59; Kroll and Levy 1992). People also “over-imitate”, in the sense that they will copy causally
irrelevant actions from the model in learning tasks that involve accomplishing some pre-
specified outcome (Keupp et al., 2018; Lyons et al., 2007).
A different line of research, however, suggests that the cultural acquisition of behavior
often involves an inferential process (Atran, 2001; Boyer, 1998; Sperber, 1996). The point here
is that during social learning, a manifested cultural representation (e.g., behavior) from a model
needs to be processed by the inferential apparatus of the learner. In psychological terms, our
“theory of mind” allows us to ascribe mental states such as beliefs and desires to other agents in
2 In preliterate, traditional societies, even religious dogmas may need to be inferred from activities (Firth 1948).
order to understand their actions (Callanan et al., 2011; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997). For instance,
when the learner observes the avoidance of rabbit consumption during pregnancy, they may
think “why does she avoid rabbit meat when pregnant? It’s probably because thinks consuming
rabbit meat is bad for her unborn child.” As much research in developmental psychology points
out, the individual’s cognitive capacity of extracting belief from observed action has important
social consequences (Lalonde and Chandler 1995; Astington 2001; See Aunger (1994) for an
example of taboo beliefs inferred from inaction). What I will focus on here is how such belief
extraction affects the transmission of cultural knowledge. While it is possible that the original
belief is “recovered”, in which case the learner would correctly infer that the reason rabbit meat
is avoided during pregnancy is due to the fear of a premature death of an infant, this is not
guaranteed. As people’s life experiences are idiosyncratic, they may not have the exact same set
of prior beliefs. Inferences such as “she avoids rabbit meat during pregnancy because she doesn’t
like its taste when pregnant” are also perfectly sensible. In the previous section when discussing
the spread of taboos in the population, I implicitly assumed a well-connected social network,
unobstructed information flow, and perfect inference. Obviously, these conditions are not always
met in real human societies. At a more fundamental level, there are biological/genetic variations
in individuals’ theory of mind capacity (Xia et al., 2012), with autism and schizophrenia being at
the end of the spectrum (Abu-Akel & Bo, 2013; Baron-Cohen, 2000), leading to heterogenous
inferences (more on this in the next section).
At first glance, these two transmission mechanisms seem incompatible: while in both
cases the avoidance behavior is passed on from one individual to another, knowledge of the
consequences of taboo violation is not transmitted in the behaviorist account of learning, whereas
this knowledge is transmitted through inference in the inferential account. I suggest, however,
that humans are capable of both types of learning: developmental research has shown that infants
as young as one year are able to engage in selective and rational imitation (in which inference is
likely involved) yet at the same time frequently exhibit unselective, seemingly irrational
imitative behaviors (Keupp et al., 2018). In reality, the role of belief extraction in the
transmission of taboos is likely to be domain and situation specific, and the transmission of the
putative consequence of taboo transgression should be viewed as probabilistic rather than
deterministic for any given learning episode.
The domain-specificity means that the extent to which the consequence of taboo violation
is inferred likely depends on the characteristics of different types of taboo. Although all taboos
are strictly speaking “intentional inaction”, some are more attention-grabbing and thus
“inference-provoking” than others. Food taboos during pregnancy, for example, are highly
salient because most people eat every day, and pregnant women are avoiding food items that are
normally consumed by everyone. In contrast, taboos that prohibit women from attending certain
ritualistic ceremonies, may not appear as surprising given the prevalent sexual division of labor
in most human societies (Panter-Brick, 2002; White & Brinkerhoff, 1981). Other factors such as
ritual costliness has also recently been shown to be a significant predictor for the individuals’
tendency to come up with explanations (Xygalatas & Mano, 2022). Relatedly, there might be
differences in how these inactions are interpreted: if they are interpreted as instrumental, i.e.,
inaction being merely means to achieve some end (often to prevent something bad from
happening), then inferences are more likely to occur; on the other hand, if the inaction is
interpreted as conventional, then the action is more likely to be copied in an automatic manner
(See Keupp, Behne, and Rakoczy (2018) for how this logic has been used to explain over-
imitation in psychology, and Whitehouse (2022, p. 35) for ritualistic behaviors).
Another factor that contributes to the domain-specificity for inferring the consequence of
taboo violation is that some taboos are more difficult to interpret and extract belief from than
others. Many human actions are causally opaque, if not simply incomprehensible (Csibra &
Gergely, 2011). The recent psychological literature on goal demotion has shown that for many
ritualistic actions, it is practically impossible to infer and understand the actor’s reason for
producing these actions (Legare et al., 2015; Nielsen et al., 2018). In the case of taboos, what the
learner observes is the absence of certain actions that are normally expected, and these
“inactions” may appear too mysterious to infer any specific reasons. This is indeed what is
observed anthropologically: while early taboo studies leave the impression that the consequences
of taboo violation are often quite specific, in practice people may only have a very vague idea
that some bad outcomes will happen if certain taboo is transgressed (Boyer & Liénard, 2006). In
Radcliffe-Brown (1939/2014)’s classic exposition, this point is made very clear: “So far as ritual
avoidances are concerned the reasons for them may vary from a very vague idea that some sort
of misfortune or ill-luck, not defined as to its kind, is likely to befall anyone who fails to observe
the taboo, to a belief that non-observance will produce some quite specific and undesirable
3.3.2. Individual heterogeneity in taboo transmission and its consequences
Even for the same taboo, there could be individual level variation in the way it is
transmitted and understood, in particular whether or not knowledge about the consequences of
taboo violations is passed on along with the behavioral prohibitions, and how such knowledge is
transmitted (i.e., direct verbal instruction vs. inference). Therefore, successful transmission of
information about taboo violation consequences should be viewed as a probabilistic event.
Published studies on taboos indicate that there is significant heterogeneity in the awareness of
both the behavioral prohibitions and the underlying reasons for taboos within a community (Lee
et al., 2009; Parmar et al., 2013; Sharifah Zahhura et al., 2012). For example, Diana et al. (2018)
found that many individuals do not know the consequences of food taboo violations, and that the
underlying “philosophy” or “reason” for such taboos had to be discovered after many in-depth
interviews in a detailed case study among the Madurese in Indonesia. Because individuals often
acquire cultural knowledge as specific learning opportunities present themselves (Sterelny,
2012), they may not have had the chance to learn every single taboo and the associated violation
consequences (See Fig. 1 for a full diagram). In fact, such heterogeneity is likely to be a general
feature of ritualistic actions or inactions: while it is true that many people cannot articulate why
certain rituals are performed (Hinde 2005), some do, and there is usually substantial diversity in
individuals’ responses (McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Xygalatas & Mano, 2022).
[Insert Figure 1 here]
Failure to transmit the putative consequences of taboo violation has two primary effects.
First, it makes falsification of the causal claim embedded in taboos (doing X causes undesirable
consequence Y) difficult, as the observed inaction itself does not indicate what would happen if
the action was to be performed, contributing to the persistence of taboo beliefs that are often
false and behavioral prohibitions that are often maladaptive. Relatedly, if the putative
consequence of taboo violation is vague, then any undesirable outcome that occurs after a taboo
transgression can be viewed as confirmation of the taboo beliefs.
Second, it opens up the possibility for the knowledge of the consequence of taboo
transgression to be completely lost from the community. Although in general it is difficult to
definitively demonstrate the loss of some cultural knowledge since many societies do not written
records, archeological and longitudinal ethnographic work has enabled researchers to document a
few cases of loss of cultural knowledge (Jones 1995; Henrich 2016, p. 247). In the case of
taboos, a taboo may lose its causal component and look very much like a behavioral custom,
which echoes Chibnik (1981)’s proposal that cultural rules may originate from
individuals/groups experimenting with different alternatives to achieve certain desirable
outcomes (doing Z causes desirable outcome Q) in the past, yet over time many people may treat
these rules as mere customs without knowing their original rationale. In other words, the reasons
why these rules are in place are lost in the population.
3.3.3. Examples of potential “taboo knowledge” loss
Let me use two examples to illustrate the point of potential knowledge (putative
consequences of taboo transgressions) loss more concretely. The first one is from my own
fieldwork among the Lahu people in southwest China: in the village of Dabangli (大邦利),
located near the China-Burma border, there is a cultural prohibition against home-brewing
alcoholic drinks. The Lahu people, however, love home-brewed alcohol: it is much stronger (it is
made using the distillation method with 30-35% alcohol) than commercially available beer, and
plays a very important role in Lahu social life (Detpitukyon et al., 2018). Nearly all home-
brewed alcohol consumed in Dabangli is imported from Xiaobangli (小邦利), another Lahu
village about two kilometers away. Note that although this distance seems negligible by modern
standards, it was a non-trivial walk before the construction of roads in this mountainous area. It
seems at least, that if someone was to start a business of home-brewing alcohol it would be very
lucrative. So why hasn’t anyone started one? My interviews of more than 40 people in the village
during the autumn of 2020 show that while most locals were aware of the behavioral prohibition,
the vast majority of them were unable to articulate any reason for such prohibition (Anonymized,
unpublished). The typical responses were “it’s our convention” or “it’s our way of doing things”,
a common finding in anthropology (Henrich and Henrich 2010) . Towards the end of my
fieldwork, however, I visited a 70-year-old man who was presumably knowledgeable about local
history, and he told me that in the past, there was someone who attempted to make home-brewed
alcohol (there was no taboo against home-brewing alcohol at the time) but died from a horrible
illness shortly after, and since then people only purchased alcohol from nearby villages.
Although at the time it wasn’t possible to verify this story, it stood out as a plausible explanation.
Conceivably, when these knowledgeable individuals pass away, the original rationale, whatever
it was, would be lost in the community and can only be recovered through inference and
The second example comes from transmitted texts. In an analysis of the phylogenetic
relationship amongst a few encyclopedia-style handbooks for household practices, Song (2004)
showed that many of the same “advices” appear in multiple books, with slight variations in how
they are recorded. What is most interesting for our purposes, however, is that some of the records
include what would happen if these advices are not followed, while others do not include such
information. See the two following examples from Ge Wu Cu Tan (~1831 CE):
“There should be no puddles in front of the door.”
“There should be no digging of wells in front of the main hall, and the doors should not
face the impluvium.”
In a different publication Ju Jia Bi Yong Shi Lei Quan Ji (~1568 CE), we find essentially the
same prohibitions, but with consequences of violating such prohibitions specified:
“[If] there are puddles in front of the door, [then] misfortunes will happen to the
household and family members will die.”
“There should be no digging of wells in front of the main hall, and the doors should not
face the impluvium. [Otherwise] the owner of the house would suffer frequent
As Song (2004) suggests, it is very likely that Ge Wu Cu Tan copied these advices from Ju Jia Bi
Yong Shi Lei Quan Ji, though it is also possible that these specific advices came from some
earlier ancestral source. In either case, we see evidence from transmitted texts that cultural
prohibitions may lose its consequence of violation, and therefore appear rather mysterious.
These examples are merely illustrative, and further systematic, quantitative studies are
needed to fully assess the extent to which the consequences of taboo transgression are lost in
human societies. Ultimately, it is trivially true that some individuals know more than others in all
human societies, and observational learning will occasionally incur mistakes. Part of the reason
why belief heterogeneity and loss is understudied may be that anthropologists often assume there
is some “cultural truth” out there (Batchelder & Anders, 2012) and certain individuals not
knowing such truth is attributed to their lack of cultural competence (Romney et al., 1986). Once
we seriously consider the information transmission dynamics in the historical context, “taboo
knowledge loss” looms as a real possibility.
The account that I have offered above defines taboos in a somewhat unconventional way, in that
it does not take sacredness and the emotional/symbolic aspects to be essential. This is not to say
that they are unimportant: these aspects no doubt play a significant part in human social life
(Durkheim 1912/2008). My attempt here is rather to show, by analyzing taboos as utilitarian
behavioral prohibitions, that there are fundamental cognitive, psychological, and social
mechanisms that give rise to these prohibitions in the first place. On top of that, I show that
during the transmission process, the belief component (consequence of taboo violation) may get
distorted and even lost in the population. As such, my account applies not only to typical
examples of taboo such as ritual prohibitions but also ordinary, “common-sense” rules against
certain behaviors such as “do not put your hand in the fire.” More precisely, I suggest that the
same set of psychological tendencies and social dynamics give rise to both ordinary cautions and
mysterious taboos: the search for explanations in case of misfortune and the imperfect
transmission of behaviors and beliefs play significant roles in producing the wide array of
cultural prohibitions that we observe in human societies.
As alluded to, this account of taboos does not aim to explain prohibitions that are
invented and implemented by the elite class in a top-down manner, utilitarian or not. Often, we
know from written historical records the exact political, religious, social, and economic
incentives behind the making of such prohibitions. In medieval Europe, the Catholic Church’s
ban on cousin marriage was clearly out of religious and social considerations by the Church
leaders at the time (Schulz, 2016). The prohibition on keeping hair in the forehead by the
Manchu people when they defeated the Ming dynasty and took over China (so that everyone had
to conform to the Manchurian Queue hairstyle) was another clear example of political
symbolism and social control (Gong, 1986). Many contemporary societies also have elaborate
law codes that not only specify various prohibitions but also the consequences of transgression
are also the result of intentional design. In such cases, it is not ordinary individuals’ retrospective
attribution of what caused some observed misfortune, but the conscious deliberation of powerful
elites that establishes the prohibitions.
Nonetheless, my account does provide an explanation for many otherwise puzzling
cultural prohibitions in decentralized settings. Pregnancy taboos, for example, are an extremely
wide-spread phenomenon in virtually all human societies, and while some have been suggested
to be adaptive, most are not (Ogbeide, 1974), and can have significant fitness consequences
(Aunger, 1994). In a review of the recent work published on cross-cultural food taboos during
pregnancy, Iradukunda (2020) found that most food prohibitions for pregnant women appear
harmful, especially in traditional, rural communities. Pregnant women are frequently
discouraged from consuming nutritious food such as meat, eggs, dairy products, as well as some
fruits and vegetables. Although there is some evidence that excessive consumption of red meat is
associated with maternal and fetal complications such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and
fetal macrosomia (Zhang et al., 2016), the culturally transmitted food prohibitions tend to be
absolute (no specification on what quantity may be safe for pregnant women), and it is much
more likely for mothers in middle and low-income communities to suffer from malnutrition as a
result of limited protein intake than maternal and fetal complication from excessive intake (Black
et al., 2013),
Granted, many of the food taboos do appear to follow sympathetic magic principles,
which have been suggested to have deep psychological and evolutionary bases (Hong, 2022;
Rozin & Nemeroff, 2012). An exclusive focus on evolved intuitions, however, tends to ignore
the empiricist component of human cognition and decision making. Despite sometimes being
described as “emotional” (Lorber, 1973) and “mystical”(Levy-Bruhl, 1926) in their epistemic
orientations, people in traditional societies (and everywhere else) do exhibit a great deal of
empiricism (Liebenberg 1990; Hong, Slingerland & Henrich, forthcoming; Hong 2022b), in the
sense that they are psychologically predisposed to identify cause and effect, to make inferences
from observation, and to obtain information from others to aid their own decision making. The
point here is that innate predispositions and empirically triggered causal attribution explain
different aspects of taboos in human societies: evolved intuitions (often quite specific) account
for why we find certain beliefs and practices plausible and attractive once they already exist in
the population, and causal attribution describes the mechanism via which these beliefs and
practices first arise.
Appreciating the role of causal attribution in taboo formation also helps us understand
some prominent features of taboos. Consider the following points:
1) The numerosity of taboos in human societies may be explained by the fact that people
constantly look for explanations for misfortunes, which serve as a cognitive-social engine
that keeps pumping taboo beliefs and practices into the population.
2) Retrospective causal attribution can account for the phenomenon that one salient
candidate cause may be associated to both misfortunes and unexpected fortunes.
Menstrual blood, for example, is believed to cause both fertility (e.g., it encourages the
growth of wheat) and infertility (e.g., it causes flowers to wither and trees to perish) in
different societies (Buckley & Gottlieb, 1988), suggesting that cultural outcomes are not
solely determined by our evolved intuitions regarding specific causal associations; rather,
there seems to be a more general process where individuals retrospectively seek the
putative causes of some (typically negative, but occasionally positive) unexpected events.
3) The numerous behavioral and food prohibitions observed by religious leaders (Singh
& Henrich, 2020) may be partially due to the fact that these people are often viewed as
ritual experts in charge of a variety of instrumental activities (e.g., among the Azande, the
person who prepares the poison oracle needs to play special attention to observing the
taboos to ensure the potency of the oracle), which inevitably fail at some substantial
frequency. These failures will trigger a search for causes, creating the potential for taboo
4) Although causal attribution is often promiscuous and therefore error prone, its original
aim is to identify true cause-effect relationships, and as such offers an additional
explanation for why many taboo beliefs are false while some are in fact sensible. For
instance, the belief that meat consumption during pregnancy causes increase in birth
weight, leading to difficulty and dangerous labor, is probably accurate (Fessler &
In addition to the above explanatory utility, retrospective causal attribution also specifies the
transmission mechanism of taboo beliefs and practices, and suggests the important possibility of
belief loss as a result of imperfect inference in heterogeneous learning episodes. In this account,
cultural beliefs are not viewed as static properties of the population but rather probabilistically
transmitted pieces of knowledge in a dynamic setting of information transfer.
The present account of taboos has testable predictions. If causal attribution is indeed a
primary force in taboo formation, then we would expect 1) putative consequence of most taboo
violations to be frequently occurring misfortunes rather than rare ones, as common misfortunes
would trigger retrospective causal attribution more often, and 2) all else being equal, societies
that experience fewer misfortunes should have fewer taboos in general. These predictions merit
further empirical studies, and future researchers may measure the frequencies of various types of
misfortunes in a community and examine their correlation with the number of taboos associated
with them, or perform cross-cultural or natural experiment studies to analyze the abundance of
taboos in different societies in a certain domain (e.g., childbirth) and the extent to which
individuals in these societies experience misfortunes in the same domain. For example,
researchers could investigate situations where a particular medical technology is introduced in a
society, which dramatically reduces infant mortality, while it is not introduced in nearby
societies, or situations where there is a substantial time difference for the introduction of such
technology in different societies. Additionally, researchers may examine the relationship
between the putative consequences of taboo violations and age-specific mortality curves; taboos
whose violation consequences concern newborns would occur more frequently compared to
those related to toddlers, given the relatively higher mortality rate among infants. It is my hope
that this paper will spark more interest in the classic anthropological study of taboos.
Conflict of Interest
I thank Eleanor Power for her insightful and constructive comments on an earlier draft of the
paper, Manvir Singh, Jonathan Kominsky, Dimitris Xygalatas and Mícheál de Barra for their
helpful suggestions as I develop this project, and Mona Xue for carefully proofreading earlier
versions of the manuscript.
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