Q: A lot of people have superstitious “rituals” they perform before they do something, in order to calm down or do better. Does that really work?
A: Yep. From kissing a lucky rabbit’s foot to listening to a favorite “pump-up” song, people know what they’re doing. Rituals have been shown to reduce anxiety before a performance.
Rituals exist in all religions and all through time.
Many of them are employed as a coping strategy to help people with some sort of task or performance.
For instance, Beyonce has an elaborate set of actions (from a listening playlist to prayers to a set of stretches and meditation) before every show.
Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game and wrote a Hebrew word for “life” in the dirt before going to bat.
Are these rituals just crazy superstitions, or is there something else going on here?
Science doesn’t have much to say about whether these rituals invoke some supernatural force, but could they actually just be a way for a person to calm down and do something familiar before a performance?
A group of researchers from a prestigious list of schools (Harvard, UC-Berkeley, U of Chicago, Columbia, and Wharton) conducted a series of experiments to test the use and effectiveness of pre-performance rituals.
The results were published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2016.
First, the experimenters wanted to see how pervasive these kinds of rituals are.
They gathered 400 people in an online survey to answer questions about their own performance rituals.
The people were asked whether they had every performed a ritual before an anxiety-provoking task, and to describe what it was.
Almost half (46.5%) said they’d performed some kind of ritual before a task.
Usually, the ritual:
- Was performed alone
- Was performed before (not made up on the spot)
- Was somehow connected to the task at hand
- Only implied that the person should calm down or get excited (it usually wasn’t a person just telling themselves something)
- Was usually just one step (less often multiple steps)
- Was secular, not religious
- Included some superstitious element
- Did not include a lucky or special item
- Included both mental and physical activities
This suggests that half of all people engage in pre-performance rituals! But do they work?
For the first group of experiments (this one was done a few times, in stages), the researchers got a group of participants to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey in front of a group of strangers.
- Yes, this is an actual scientific study.
Before singing, the participants were instructed to do one of the following activities:
- A ritual (“Please do the following ritual: Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.”)
- No ritual (“Please wait.”)
- Try to calm down (“Do your best to calm down before you sing.”
The participants’ emotions, heart rate, and musical performance (rated by judges) were all tracked during the study.
How did the three ways of preparing help?
Doing the ritual had the following benefits (vs. doing nothing, or trying to calm down):
- Reduced anxiety
- Reduced heart rate
- Improved performance (as rated by judges)
Using a statistical method, the researchers found that the ritual’s effect on performance was due to reducing anxiety.
In this experiment, the researchers wanted to know whether doing a ritual was helpful in a different type of situation: doing math.
The researchers also wanted to know whether rituals work in both high and low anxiety situations.
Four hundred survey-takers were given math problems online to see how they performed.
Some participants were told that the math problems were “fun” and they’d get paid $.50 per correct question. (LOW ANXIETY)
Some participants were told that the math problems were “difficult,” there was a 5-second limit, their peers would be evaluating their performance, and they’d start at $4 and lose $.50 per wrong answer. (HIGH ANXIETY)
In the end, everyone got the same amount of money.
There were a total of 8 math problems.
Before doing the math problems, the participants were either told to do a ritual (a digitized version of the ritual in experiment 1), or “wait a few minutes before starting the task” (no ritual).
Doing a ritual enhanced performance for the high anxiety math participants, but not in the low anxiety condition.
This suggests that rituals work mainly by reducing anxiety in high-anxiety situations.
If the situation is low-anxiety, rituals don’t do much.
What is the difference between “rituals” and just random behaviors?
In the first studies, the ritual was CALLED a “ritual,” and it involved people expressing their emotions.
The researchers wanted to try two new things:
- What about having people simply perform behaviors, OR doing the behaviors and calling it a “ritual?”
- What if it has nothing to do with expression or emotions? What if it’s just a random emotionless behavior?
To test this, the researchers had 120 participants learn a math technique and then take a short test.
The participants were put in one of three groups:
- Ritual group
- Random behavior group
In the ritual group, participants were told to “complete a short ritual.” In the random behavior group, they were told to “complete a few random behaviors.”
In both of these groups, the behaviors were the same: count from 0-10, write these numbers on a piece of paper, pour salt on the paper, crinkle it up, and throw it away.
The only difference was whether it was called a “ritual” or “random behaviors.”
Then, their performance on the math test was measured.
When the behaviors were called a “ritual,” math performance improved!
When it was called “random behaviors” or when the participants just waited, the performance was lower.
This suggests that not just any old behavior will do – it has to be a “ritual!”
The researchers repeated this study to determine whether rituals improve anxiety because they help a person feel more in control.
They found that calling it a “ritual” didn’t increase people’s subjective feelings of control, but DID decrease anxiety.
Maybe there’s something to pre-performance rituals after all!
Here’s what we learned:
Rituals reduce anxiety and heart rate.
Rituals increase performance.
Rituals only really work in high-anxiety situations (they don’t improve performance in low-anxiety situations).
Rituals need to be called or thought of as “rituals” (they’re not just a random series of behaviors).
So as the researchers (and Journey) stated, “Don’t Stop Believing!” Rituals work!
Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71-85. Link: https://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/jschroeder/Publications/Rituals%20OBHDP.pdf