The power of rituals: they calm nerves and boost performance

Haka dancersBy Alex Fradera

A tough interview or critical match can generate such anxiety that it ends up sabotaging our hopes and fulfilling our fears. People adopt different ploys to drive it away, from meditating to enjoying a cigarette. But it’s another tactic at the centre of new research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: the power of ritual. Many top-level performers use ritual to prepare for their game or show, whether this be chewing on exactly two cookies or chanting Latin – and the new research suggests many of the rest of us do too, with around half of a surveyed sample of participants admitting to trying it at least once. But is there a point to it?

The research, led by Harvard Business School’s Alison Woods Brooks, suggests there is. In a pair of studies, 250 participants had to cope with the pressure of having to sing part of a song to a stranger, the Journey “classic” Don’t Stop Believing. Just before they put their voice on show, participants in one condition were asked to conduct a short ritual: draw a picture of their feelings, sprinkle salt on it, recite a countdown aloud before throwing the paper in the trash.

Using a pulse tracker to measure the participants’ heart rate, the researchers found that assigning them the singing task set their hearts racing. But they also found that practicing the ritual, compared to doing nothing, dropped participants’ heart rate down towards normal levels. Self-reported anxiety was also reduced, and ritual users produced singing of a higher quality in terms of pitch, volume and note duration. They didn’t just feel better; they performed better, too.

The next study asked whether ritual is effective in any challenging situation, or specifically in anxiety-provoking contexts. Participants all attempted the same set of maths problems, but the researchers told some of them they were “fun maths puzzles”, while telling others it was “a very difficult IQ test”; only the second group showed improved performance after completing a ritual beforehand, suggesting that anxiety alleviation is key.

How do rituals calm us down? Maybe it’s the chance to express oneself emotionally, known to be an effective method of reducing anxiety. But the definition of ritual used by Brooks – fixed routines with symbolic significance – doesn’t require any self-expression. And a neutral procedure – writing down a fixed sequence of numbers – turned out to work just as well in improving performance. However, when participants were told this procedure was just “a few random behaviours” it was less effective than when it was explicitly labelled as a ritual, confirming that the symbolic significance is an important component of the effect.

Small studies on “pre-performance routines” have been published in the past but their focus included more obviously functional practices, such as stretches and concentration exercises. This new work shows the specific benefits owing to ritual: the millennia-old cultural practice used to cope with the hunt, birth, and death. More modern anxiety management techniques such as expressive writing or CBT’s emotional appraisal are familiar parts of the psychologist’s toolkit, and may appear as overdue replacements for the methods of the past. But as Brooks and her colleagues conclude, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.”

Don’t Stop Believing: Rituals Improve Performance by Decreasing Anxiety

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest