Keeping rituals in check

Rituals, such as tying your shoelaces a certain way before a big game, can help with pressure,...
Rituals, such as tying your shoelaces a certain way before a big game, can help with pressure, but the key is to not let them become too overpowering. Photo: Getty Images
Everyday rituals can help us cope with pressure, unlock our emotions and define our identities — but can also become unhelpful and divisive, writes Killian Fox.

Michael Norton studied psychology and was a fellow at the MIT Media Lab before becoming professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Known for his research on behavioural economics and wellbeing, Norton published his first book, Happy Money: The New Science of Smarter Spending, with Elizabeth Dunn, in 2013. For his latest, The Ritual Effect: The Transformative Power of Our Everyday Actions, Norton spent more than a decade surveying thousands of people about the role of ritual in their lives.

Q. Rituals seem a tricky subject for scientific study. How do you categorise them and measure their effect?

It felt very daunting at first, because you can’t randomly assign people to families and have them do different rituals, then follow up in 12 years. At first I was going to study obvious things like weddings and funerals, but when we surveyed people, we found that they had all these other things they made up — in their families, with a significant other, with people at work. That opened it up a lot. We could look at these kinds of rituals and see when people do them. We could measure their emotions, we could really start to get traction on what these things are doing in our lives.

Q. So what are they doing? What is the "ritual effect", as you call it?

One of the things that rituals do is help us to unlock emotions that may otherwise be hard to unlock. You can experience awe or wonder if you go to the Grand Canyon, for example, but it’s hard to go there every day. And so we use these rituals to help us feel in different ways. We use them to cope with grief, to amp ourselves up, to calm ourselves down, or whatever we need in the moment.

Q. Is that what distinguishes rituals from habits — the emotional component?

That’s a big part of it. We describe habits as the "what", as the thing that you’re doing, whereas rituals are what you’re building around it. Take a mundane action like tying your shoes. It’s boring, and yet when a tennis player does it in a particular way, they feel like they can go out and play at Wimbledon. So rituals bring emotion and meaning.

Q. So rituals can reinforce or create a sense of identity?

Think about families at dinner. At a very basic level, they’re putting calories in their faces. But when families are eating a cake that their great-grandmother made, it’s a connection to the past and a sense of "who we are as a family".

Q. Do you think there’s something deep in the human brain that attracts us to ritual?

There is some neuroscience on this, but from my perspective as a behavioural scientist there are very few things that humans use in every situation, in response to various problems, and ritual is one of them. I think that suggests there’s something inside us that turns to ritual. Go back thousands of years and you can find evidence that we were doing them then too — ceremonial burials, for example.

Q. Why do so many top athletes and musicians rely on rituals before they perform?

This is one of the most fun things to study. There is research showing that, as things become more stressful, we’re more likely to behave in ritualistic ways. I have stress in my life, but not like Beyonce has stress, and I’d look very strange if I did her elaborate rituals before teaching a class. Culturally, we allow people who are doing very stressful things to do elaborate rituals without really judging them. Research shows that they also help us to be a little less reactive to our errors during a performance.

Q. From your research, how important are rituals in romantic relationships?

Sometimes people ask: "What’s your favourite ritual that you’ve ever come across?" And there are lots, but my favourite is this couple who said they clink forks three times before they eat. If I say that to an audience, there’s an instantaneous "Awwwww". We do see in our research that rituals serve as a signal of commitment (we don’t know fully whether couples who already love each other are more likely to engage in rituals — the causal arrows are hard to tease apart). You can get married and sign papers to show that you’re committed, but day to day it’s these little actions that we’ve been doing for years that signal "we’re in this, this is us, we’re going to keep doing this". And when couples stop clinking forks, it’s often very upsetting.

Q. What about rituals in family relationships?

Families that report having rituals around holidays are more likely to say that they feel close to one another, and they’re more likely to get together for those holidays. So there’s a cementing function that draws us back. As with couples, we don’t know if families that love each other are more likely to develop rituals, but there is something there.

Q. Rituals aren’t always beneficial. Can they be damaging at the individual and societal levels?

On the individual level, if a ritual gets interrupted, it can really throw us off. And as rituals become too central, they can start to interfere. And that’s where we see issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder, where the ritual itself becomes the goal. Instead of checking the door is locked so you can get on with your day, the checking itself becomes the goal and you don’t end up doing the thing you had to do.

Q. On a societal level, can rituals divide as well as unite?

I taught a class the other day, and I often do this thing where I have everybody stand up and perform a made-up ritual that involves clapping, and it’s very fun, but if somebody claps at the wrong time, people look really annoyed. If that happens with a made-up ritual, you can see how, at a broader level, when history and culture and tradition come into play, even minor differences can become a real point of contention.

Q. What do you hope people get out of the book?

I really love when people notice the things they’re already doing. It’s almost like you laugh at yourself a bit, but from then on, when you do it, it has a different resonance because you owned it — it’s your ritual. And I want to encourage people to experiment. If you don’t do a ritual before your big stressful presentation, try something out. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine, but I like the idea of having these tools that we can experiment with and see if they can help us. — The Observer