Performing meaningless rituals boosts our self-control through making us feel more self-disciplined

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From Tian et al, 2018

By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

We could say without exaggeration that the discovery of a means of achieving full control over oneself is something of a “holy grail” for psychology. There is nothing to indicate that we are getting any closer to finding one, but recent decades have brought us a growing number of discoveries that at least partially allow us to enhance self-control mechanisms. One of them is the light which has been shed on the importance of rituals in boosting self-control. Now in a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Allen Ding Tian and his collaborators have examined whether enacting rituals (defined as “a fixed episodic sequence of actions characterised by rigidity and repetition”) can enhance subjective feelings of self-discipline, such that rituals can be harnessed to improve behavioural self-control. 

The researchers planned and carried out six interesting experiments. For the first they recruited 93 undergraduate women at a gym who had a goal of losing weight. All participants received the same instructions to try to reduce their calorie intake over a 5-day period, but half were told to be “mindful” about their food consumption, whereas the other half were taught a three-step pre-eating ritual to remind them to reduce calorie intake. Before every meal they had to cut their food into pieces before consuming it. Next, they rearranged the pieces so that they were perfectly symmetric on their plates, and finally they had to press their eating utensils against the top of their food three times. 

It appears that rituals really can boost self-control. Participants who enacted a pre-eating ritual reported significantly lower calorie consumption than those who attempted to be mindful about what they ate. 

The researchers decided to replicate this study in a laboratory and find out if any random gestures would have the same beneficial effect as repeated rituals. The participants learned they would be completing a taste test of carrots and chocolate. They received four bags from the experimenter: three contained a baby carrot, one a chocolate truffle. First, they had to eat two carrots, while preceding each act of eating with either: the exact same set of ritual movements (involving knocking the table with their knuckles, closing their eyes and counting, among other things); a set of random gestures that were similar to the ritual movements but different each time (so they didn’t resemble a ritualised script); or no behaviour. Next, the participants could choose whether to eat the remaining carrot or the truffle. Participants who had enacted a ritual before eating the first two carrots tended to make the healthier choice compared with individuals in the other groups. 

Two further experiments involved participants either twice enacting a ritualised set of movements (though they were not labelled as such); performing one set of random gestures; or doing nothing (control group). Then they made a choice between a Snickers bar or a healthy Odwalla bar. Again, the ritual group showed greater self-control and this seemed to be driven by the way that rituals boosted their feelings of self-discipline (as measured by their agreement with statements like “I felt mentally strong when making this decision”).

A fourth experiment assessed the effect of rituals in another self-control context—prosocial decision-making. Participants were asked to imagine that they had been invited to a friend’s party that would be a lot of fun. They were then informed that they had received an unexpected email from an affiliated charity organisation requesting their attendance that same evening at a public fundraiser. They must decide which event to go to, but before taking the decision, one group of the participants twice performed a series of ritual movements, while other groups either engaged in a one-off series of random gestures, or they took their decision immediately. The link between performing rituals and greater self-discipline was confirmed again with the ritual group showing a greater preference for the charity fundraiser. 

A final experiment in the series demonstrated that rituals only affect decision making when a self-control conflict is involved (such as choosing between a fundraiser and party), not when choosing between two options where self-control is not an issue (such as choosing between two fun parties).

Note that, unlike cultural rituals, all of the rituals used in the experiments were devoid of meaning. Incorporated into various spheres of our lives, cultural rituals sometimes contribute to improving self-discipline, but there are also others which induce us to abandon self-control; these include rituals surrounding the shared consumption of celebratory meals, during which excessive self-discipline can even be taken as rudeness. 

The results of the presented studies are quite promising for anyone who would like to boost their self-control, but the authors also demonstrate how many aspects of rituals remain unexplored. One of the more interesting questions that researchers may engage concerns the potential difference in increase in self-discipline with rituals created by individuals for their own purposes, and those adopted from or even imposed by the surrounding environment. Also, does the effectiveness of a ritual depend on the amount of effort put into it? Do rituals repeated often and without requiring attention also enhance self-control? All this remains to be explored by future research. 

Enacting rituals to improve self-control

Post written by Dr Tomasz Witkowski for the BPS Research Digest. Tomasz is a psychologist and science writer who specialises in debunking pseudoscience in the field of psychology, psychotherapy and diagnosis. He has published over a dozen books, dozens of scientific papers and over 100 popular articles (some of them in Skeptical Inquirer). In 2016 his latest book Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy was published by BrownWalker Press. He blogs at https://forbiddenpsychology.wordpress.com/.

7 thoughts on “Performing meaningless rituals boosts our self-control through making us feel more self-disciplined”

  1. People with OCD tend to carry out certain rituals in most of there daily tasks. Does this mean that people with OCD have more self control? Or can people with OCD be reprogrammed to use the disorder to have benefits of self control?

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  2. The rituals described are CLASSIC meaningless OCD rituals that imprison many OCD sufferers. I’m so curious; did any of the researchers have OCD? Did any of them specialize in its study or treatment?
    The internal conflicts/neurotransmitter loops/anxiety and release/whatever the F they are that force OCD sufferers to perform these rituals cause them great pain and sorrow, rather than increasing their self-esteem.
    The exact mimicry of classic OCD rituals in this study makes me extremely suspicious of what it was really about.

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