Mind & Body

Performing Meaningless Rituals Can Improve Your Self-Control

When you think of rituals, you might think of a baptism or a seance — but rituals aren't always spiritual, or even particularly meaningful. (Look at secret handshakes.) Just take it from a new psychological study, which defines a ritual as simply "a fixed episodic sequence of actions characterised by rigidity and repetition." This same study found that even meaningless rituals can be powerful enough to help us conjure self-control.

A Tale of Five Rituals

The study in question examined the effects of rituals in five different situations, three of them related to dieting. In one, researchers chose 93 undergraduate women who were trying to lose weight and asked them all to consume fewer calories over the course of five days. Half were asked to do this by being "mindful"; the other were instructed to perform a ritual before each meal, in which they cut their food into small pieces, arranged it symmetrically on their plate, and then pressed each piece three times with a fork. Surprisingly, the people who performed the ritual consumed significantly fewer calories, on average, than their mindful peers.

In two other situations, people made healthier snack choices when they performed a meaningless ritual before they made their selection. A ritual made subjects more likely to choose a carrot over a chocolate truffle, and an Odwalla bar over a Snickers.

Rituals seem to improve self-control in social scenarios, too. In another situation, study participants were told to imagine that they were planning to go to a friend's fun party that night. (Yes — researchers specified the party would be fun.) Then, they imagined that a charity they were affiliated with asked them to attend a fundraiser that conflicted with the party. Which one would they go to? A portion of the participants were told to perform a ritual where they stood upright, put their hands on their knees, then closed their eyes for 10 seconds before making their decision. Those who performed that ritual were more likely to pick the fundraiser — the more responsible option.

In the last situation, participants performed a ritual before making choices unrelated to self-control. (For instance: Which of these two fun parties will you go to?) Here, the ritual had no impact on the choices people made.

Why Are Meaningless Rituals Meaningful?

It's still an open question, but one theory is that performing rituals puts us in a "ritual stance" where we're doing something for the sake of doing it correctly and precisely. In this stance, you would follow a recipe precisely, for instance, whereas in an "instrumental stance," where you're more focused on your ultimate goal, you might tweak the recipe based on what you have in the fridge.

Spending time in a ritual stance can improve your focus, memory, and self-control, according to several different studies. For instance, playing a complicated ritualized game for three months improved children's self-control and ability to delay gratification. The ritual of the game, like the rituals in the study above, was meaningless — but some theorize that religious rituals (from all denominations) hone people's capacity for self-control, too, training them to consciously modify their natural impulses.

Some analysis of the study above notes that not all rituals boost self-control. Some help us abandon it — like rituals performed before a giant ceremonial meal, where it's expected that you'll eat a lot. Self-control doesn't always mean portion control, though. Even at a ceremonial meal, the ritual is helping people behave intentionally and override a natural impulse: to stop eating when you're full. If that's not self-control, what is?

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For more on self-control, read Kelly McGonigal's "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice July 30, 2018

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