Mortal Rituals

How social norms make us human

Sucking the Marrow out of Life – with Ritual

Experience life more intensely with ritual.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast p. 6

Perhaps no one embodied lust for living like Ernest Hemingway. Whether dodging bulls and bullets in Spain, deep-sea fishing off Panama, or big-game hunting in Kenya, “Papa” was all-in. And, as the quote above conveys, he understood that integral to the good life was an appreciation of good food. But when is that appreciation most intense? Context is critical. Oysters are better with white wine and both are better in a sea-side café amongst old friends. A recent study shows how another contextual factor—ritual—plays a key role in our enjoyment of good food. The more we ritualized our consumption, the more we’ll relish the experience.

University of Minnesota Marketing Professor Kathleen Vohs and colleagues tested people’s self-reported enjoyment of a variety of foods including chocolate bars, lemonade, and carrots. Prior to consuming the food, some of the participants engaged in a series of deliberate, strictly sequenced (in other words, ritualized) gestures. For example, before eating the chocolate bar, they had to break it in two, unwrap one half and eat, then repeat with the other half. Or, they had to pour half a packet of lemonade mix into a cup, stir, wait 30 seconds, then add the other half, stir again, wait 30 seconds and then drink. Other participants simply consumed after pausing an amount of time equal to the other group’s pre-consumption ritual or they engaged in random gestures before consuming.

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Participants who ritualized their consumption reported significantly greater enjoyment of the food (even carrots!) and were found to actually consume the food more slowly (by nine seconds on average), apparently savoring the experience more deeply than the others. Two other findings were noteworthy. One, enjoyment was further amplified if a delay was imposed between the ritual and the consumption. Two, greater enjoyment was not found for participants who merely observed ritualized food intake, suggesting that it was the active involvement in ritual that heighted the positive experience.

The study indicates that ritual enhances experience by increasing one’s involvement and intrinsic interest in the experience. This in turn focuses attention and heightens sensory awareness, making wine fruiter, oysters saltier—and quite likely—voices more melodic, colors more vivid, and friends more valued. Hemingway climbed mountains and crossed continents—his clenched fist draining life of every precious drop. More ritual might allow us to do the same much closer to home. 

Ref: Vohs, K. D., Y. Wang, F. Gino, and M. I. Norton. "Rituals Enhance Consumption." Psychological Science 24, no. 9 (September 2013): 1714–1721.

 

The Good Life: food, friends, ritual

Matthew Rossano, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University.

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