Michael Norton and Francesca Gino, suggests there is a shared psychological mechanism - a comforting sense of increased control. Moreover, the researchers report that even non-believers can benefit (pdf via author website).
Norton and Gino began by asking 247 participants recruited online (average age 33; 42 per cent were male) to write about a bereavement they'd experienced in the past, or a relationship that had ended. Half of them were additionally asked to write about a coping ritual they'd performed at the time. The main result here was that the participants who recalled their ritual reported feeling less grief about their loss. This was explained by their greater feelings of control, and wasn't to do with the simple fact they'd written more than the other participants.
Relying on reminiscence in this way is obviously problematic from a research perspective, so for a follow-up Norton and Gino invited 109 students to their lab. Groups of 9 to 15 students were told that one of them would win a $200 prize, and to intensify the situation they were asked to write about what it would mean to them to win, and how they'd use the cash. One student was duly awarded the money and left. Half the remaining participants were then instructed to perform a 4-stage ritual: they drew their feelings about losing on a piece of paper, sprinkled salt on the drawing, tore it up, then counted to ten. The others acted as controls and simply drew their feelings on the paper.
The key finding was that the ritual students subsequently reported experiencing less upset and anger than the controls at the fact they hadn't won the money, and this was largely explained by their greater feelings of control. Crucially, the comfort of the ritual was unaffected by how often participants reported conducting rituals in their lives or whether or not they believed in the power of rituals. It seems there's something about the process of going through a multi-stepped procedure that provokes in people feelings of control, above and beyond the role played by any associated religious or mystical beliefs.
A third and final study was similar and clarified some issues - reading that some people sit in silence after a loss, and then sitting in silence themselves, did not bring comfort to participants who lost out in a lottery for $200. Reading that some people perform rituals after a loss also brought no comfort, unless the participants then went on to perform a ritual themselves.
Norton and Gino said they did not mean to imply that human and monetary loss are equivalent, but they do think rituals may bring comfort in both situations via the shared mechanism of an increased sense of control. They added that more research was needed on the impact of specific forms of ritual in different contexts, but for now their results offered preliminary support "for Durkheim's contention that 'mourning is left behind, thanks to the mourning itself'; the rituals of mourning in which our participants engaged hastened the decline of the feeling of mourning that accompanies loss."
An important caveat the researchers mentioned is that this research was with participants who are mentally well and so it doesn't speak to the issue of rituals that become dysfunctional and all consuming, as can happen in obsessive compulsive disorder.
Norton and Gino's paper complements a study published last year that looked at people's beliefs about the factors likely to increase ritual efficacy, including repetition and number of procedural steps.
Norton MI, and Gino F (2013). Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 23398180
Superstitions can improve performance by boosting confidence.
Feature article in Nature "Praying, fighting, dancing, chanting — human rituals could illuminate the growth of community and the origins of civilization."
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.