Rituals are a pervasive and ubiquitous aspect of human culture, but when we naïvely observe an opaque set of ritual actions, how do we come to understand its significance? To investigate this, across two experiments we manipulated the degree to which actions were ritualistic or ordinary, and whether or not they were accompanied with context. In Experiment 1, 474 adult participants were presented with videos of novel rituals (causally opaque actions) or control actions (causally transparent) performed on a set of objects accompanied with neutral-valance written context. Experiment 2 presented the same video stimuli but with negative and aversive written context. In both experiments ritualized objects were rated as physically unchanged, but more ‘special’ and more ‘desirable’ than objects subjected to control actions, with context amplifying this effect. Results are discussed with reference to the Ritual Stance and the Social-Action hypothesis. Implications for both theories are discussed, as are methodological concerns regarding the empirical investigation of ritual cognition. We argue that causally opaque ritual actions guide the behavior of naïve viewers because such actions are perceived as socially normative, rather than with reference to supernatural intervention or causation.