From the Lab: The Power of Rituals

In a recent study at Harvard Business School, reported by BPS Research Digest, participants were asked to engage in an anxiety-inducing task: singing a song in front of a stranger. Before singing the song, some participants were asked to conduct a ritual: they drew a picture of their feelings, sprinkled salt on it, and counted to five before crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the trash.

As silly as this ritual sounds, the participants who engaged in it reported significantly less anxiety about singing and had lower heart rates than those who didn’t. And that’s not all: the ritual made them perform better too!

Interestingly, it didn’t matter what the ritual was—an alternative ritual that involved writing down a sequence of numbers was also effective. What did matter, however, was that is was called a “ritual.” When the ritual was called what it really was, “a few random behaviors,” the effect disappeared.

As the authors of the study conclude, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.” So whether it’s salting your feelings, writing down numbers, or maybe even a practice that has additional anxiety-reducing effects (like those described in The Science of Speaking), engaging in a ritual before your speech, and explicitly identifying it as such, can be an effective method for overcoming your nerves.

Leave a Reply