David T. Neal, Ph.D., and Wendy Wood, Ph.D.

The New Unconscious

How to Be a (Happy) Creature of Ritual

Simple rituals can enhance meaning and feelings of control and improve coping.

Posted Feb 10, 2014

World cup players swap jerseys - a ritual that may help create, and not just reflect, deep psychological meaning.

New research, however, is challenging the idea that rituals serve little useful function. Instead, it seems that engaging in at least some forms of ritualistic behavior can make us savor life more, achieve deeper levels of involvement in what we’re doing, recover better from loss, and maybe even perform better at school.

 Kathleen Vohs and colleagues report some of these finding in a recent issue of Psychological Science. In their experiments, people were asked to taste test and then rate their enjoyment of a range of foods, including chocolate, lemonade, and carrots. Importantly, half of the participants were asked to perform a short ritual before the taste test – for example, breaking the chocolate bar in half, unwrapping that half only, eating it, then unwrapping and eating the remaining half. Other participants didn’t perform the ritual and just relaxed for the same period of time.

The results? Engaging in the simple ritual led people to enjoy the food more, perceive it as more flavorful, spend more time savoring the experience, and be willing to pay more to buy it. These findings worked even for the carrots, suggesting that rituals might be useful in enhancing the enjoyment and value of healthy eating. 

Can rituals also be helpful when people are facing more serious, negative life events? Mike Norton and Francesca Gino’s paper in this month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests the answer is “yes.”

The researchers observed that, across diverse cultures, rituals are often linked with emotionally significant losses, such as the death of a loved one, coping with war, and the ending of major relationships. When mourning the death of a loved one, for example, people sometimes mimic the characteristic routines of the person who passed away—visiting their favorite café, tracing the steps of their daily stroll, or watching their preferred TV shows.

In a series of experiments, Norton and Gino show that loss-related rituals like these are genuinely effective in reducing grief and helping people cope.

In one study, participants in a small group learned they were part of a lottery, with a chance to win $200. One group member was then randomly declared the winner, given $200 cash and then allowed to leave the study early. The remaining crestfallen participants were then sent into individual cubicles and assigned randomly into one of two groups. Half of the participants simply drew on a piece of paper for a few minutes, showing how they felt. The other half of participants also drew about how they felt, but they then sprinkled a pinch of salt on their description, tore it up, and then counted to ten, five times in their head. 

Did the addition of the arbitrary ritual help people cope with the feeling of loss over the lottery outcome? It did. Those in the ritual group experienced significantly lower grief than those who simply drew about their feelings.

But importantly, the study also tells us how rituals are helpful. Performing the strange ritual somehow made people feel more in control of outcomes in life, and this feeling of control accounted for the lowered feelings of grief following the loss. And in good news for non-superstitious types, it didn’t matter whether participants generally believed in rituals or engaged in them frequently in daily life. The feeling of increased control and lower grief occurred for skeptics and believers alike.

The take-away message? Building simple rituals, even if arbitrary and idiosyncratic, can be an effective way to add meaning to daily life, gain deeper involvement, cope with loss, and restore feelings of control.

About this blog: How often is consciousness really in the driver’s seat? Who is really pulling the strings behind our choices, feelings and actions? In “The New Unconscious,” we highlight the latest scientific findings showing how unconscious and automatic processes drive much of daily life. From habits, to nudges, heuristics and priming effects, we’ll learn how “The New Unconscious” works – and how it can be tuned and changed to influence what we buy, what we eat, whether we exercise and whether our relationships flourish.

David Neal, Ph.D.

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Wendy Wood, Ph.D.