Rituals Have the Power to Enhance Self-Control

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Rituals Have the Power to Enhance Self-Control

Researchers advise that people should try performing rituals to enhance their self-control. / Photo by: Photographee.eu via Shutterstock


People’s problems are usually brought about by not having the ability to control oneself. According to Francesca Gino, a researcher from Harvard University and author of the article Need More Self Control? Try a Simple Ritual, self-control makes people capable of refusing the choices that may satisfy them in the short-term, but may not be beneficial for them in the long term.

Many experts like behavioral scientists and psychologists have attempted to find ways individuals can gain better self-control. One study suggests that having motivating incentives can help a person have more self-control, but there is a limit to what rewards can do to improve it. Another method recommended is to use tools such as StickK.com to drive a person to become more committed to reaching their goal. However, tools like these also have a downside to them. If one uses a tool to aid them in applying to steps to achieve their goal, they may also need the assistance of another person to keep track of their progress.

Researchers of the study Enacting Rituals to Improve Self-control propose a third option that may aid people in boosting their self-control. They advise that people try performing rituals as a way to enhance their self-control.


What Is a Ritual?

In the study which was headed by Allen Ding Tian and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a ritual is defined as “a fixed episodic sequence of actions characterized by rigidity and repetition.” The Scientific American has a different meaning for a ritual. Rituals, it was stated,  is a sequence of steps people engage that is associated with symbolic interpretations.


What Is Self-control?

Self-control, also known as willpower, is explained by the American Psychological Association as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet goals” and “the capacity to override unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse.’



The Ritual Experiments

Tian, Gino, and their co-authors conducted several studies to assess whether or nor rituals were effective in improving people’s self-control. One was performed in a university gym, while the others were carried out in a laboratory.


Demonstration of how rituals could lessen one’s calorie-intake

In the university gym, they gathered 93 undergraduate women who wanted to lose weight for their five-day experiment. The women were separated into two groups. One group was instructed to just be mindful of their calorie intake. The second group was provided with a specific three-step ritual they had to strictly follow before eating their food. The three steps they had to perform were: First, slicing their meal into pieces. Secondly, they had to arrange the pieces symmetrically. Lastly, eating utensils had to be pressed on top of their meal three times.

The result of their study shows that subjects who performed the three-step ritual before consuming their food had taken in fewer calories than the mindful group.


Illustration of how rituals can help people make healthier decisions

In the laboratory, the researchers wanted to test if this also applied to random gestures and if rituals could cause people to choose healthier food choices even when they were in front of an unhealthy one.  Every participant was given four bags. Baby carrots were placed inside three of the bags, while only one bag had a Lindt chocolate truffle in it.

This time, they segregated their participants into three groups. There was a group assigned to make random gestures. Another group was ordered to only consume carrots. The last group was told to do a ritual before they ate the carrots.

The ritual group was required to do the following set of actions: First, their right hand should be formed into a fist. Then, they had to use their knuckles to knock on the table two times. Secondly, they had to line three of the bags in front of them. Thirdly, they would have to knock on the table again with their right hand. Finally, they should take a deep breath and close their eyes for two seconds. This group of participants was asked two questions about eating carrots before they actually consumed the third one. Eventually, they were informed that they were allowed to choose between eating the carrot, which was the healthy option, or the chocolate, which was the tempting, unhealthy option.

The random-gestures group was asked to perform a different set of steps before eating the two carrots. The subjects in this group were also told that they could decide to eat either the chocolate or the carrot.

The group that was assigned to simply eat the two carrots without rituals or other steps were also asked two questions. Like the previous groups, they were also given the option of consuming the carrot or chocolate.

Most of the subjects who were included in the ritual group opted for the carrot rather than the chocolate.


The researchers conducted a test wherein baby carrots were placed inside three of the bags, while only one bag had a Lindt chocolate truffle in it and most of the subjects in the ritual group opted for the carrot. / Photo by: Dmytro Zinkevych via Shutterstock


Study of how rituals affect prosocial decision-making

For this study, the researchers decided to examine if rituals also influenced a person’s prosocial decision making. The experiment involved making three groups of participants choose between going to a friend’s party or a fundraising event which would be held on the same night. However, before selecting an event which they would like to go to, the three groups were given different tasks.

One group was told go through a set of rituals. The next group was assigned to do some random gestures. The final group was instructed to make their decision instantly. After the experiment was conducted, it was shown that the participants who performed rituals favored attending the fundraising event over the party.


How Do Rituals Improve Self-Control?

Medium says that psychology researches have discovered that an individual’s behavior results in having conclusions about themselves. For example, if a student does their homework, they may see themselves as responsible. In adhering to a sequence of steps repeatedly, which happens when a person performs a ritual, discipline is needed. It is based on this that Tian and her team of researchers claim that when people see themselves perform a ritual, they translate this act into them being a person with self-control. In affirmation, Mental Floss says that rituals manipulate the brain into making one believe that they have a strong willpower.


Discipline is needed when a person performs a ritual. / Photo by: Rei Imagine via Shutterstock




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