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Med Hypotheses. 2010 Mar;74(3):422-7. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.06.035. Epub 2010 Jan 6.

Oath-taking: a divine prescription for health-related behaviour change?

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  • 1Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.


Approaches to personal behaviour change include contractual and negotiation models. This paper elaborates these partnership models by linking a religious act to desired behaviour change beyond narrow and specific domains, such as promotion of sexual abstinence. It discusses the hypothesis that oath-taking can facilitate positive, health-related behaviour change in human individuals. The change must be desired by these individuals when they nevertheless feel conflicted in their motives, and believe in a divine presence to which they can oath-take. In support of this meta-hypothesis of the effectiveness of oath-taking to a hypothetical divinity, we first describe the nature of oaths and oath-taking, including legitimacy and satisfaction conditions, and then postulate how ten interrelated sets of mechanisms can be expected to facilitate oath-keeping. We playfully and heuristically express these mechanisms as 'ten commandments'. Constituting a divine prescription for health-related change, the mechanisms require oath-takers to: believe in the oath, recognise oath-taking as an established and legitimate social behaviour, crystallise the content of the oath, declare the oath aloud, oath-take privately if they prefer, commit to relationships that support oath-taking, replace their relationship with the unwanted behaviour, sanctify the divine presence, honour obligations produced by the oath-taking, and fear oath-breaking. Limitations of oath-taking are then considered as are some of the implications of our arguments.

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