Before the match, you have to take a freezing-cold shower. Every time. When you walk on the tennis court, never step on the lines. Oh, and always cross the lines with your right foot first.
Your tournament ID has to be face up. Always. Consume an energy gel during your warm-up and make sure to squeeze it four times. Not three times. Not five times. Four.
Hop up and down as the ref does the coin toss. Then run to the baseline and drag your foot across the length of it. Then hit your shoe with your racket. Then make sure to…
Okay, I’m going to stop here. There are at least a dozen more rituals but I don’t want to type them all and, frankly, you don’t want to read them all. You and I would never do all these crazy things…
But then again, we’re not Rafael Nadal. Yes, he does all this — and more — before every single match. No, he doesn’t have OCD. But he is one of the greatest tennis players to ever lift a racket. And he swears by his rituals. Strange, right? Um, maybe not…
Humans, as a group, have some very weird rituals. Some tribal groups do fire walks. Others pierce themselves. And there are a lot of other rituals so extreme they look like a challenge you might see in the “Jackass” movies.
Then again, you and I aren’t all that different. Knocking on wood, presidential inaugurations, Bar Mitzvahs, Quinceaneras, weddings, funerals, baptisms, high school graduation, anniversaries…
Some readers might be frowning right now: “But those rituals are different…”
But are they? And this gets us to the heart of what makes rituals so interesting: they don’t accomplish anything. I’m not saying they’re unimportant – quite the opposite. But they don’t actually accomplish anything.
Rituals are rituals because they are what researchers call “causally opaque.” You brush your teeth because that process really does clean your teeth. But a wedding ceremony doesn’t actually create a physical change. (In fact, a whole separate legal procedure is necessary to make it official.) As sociologist George C. Homans said, “Ritual actions do not produce a practical result on the external world – that is one of the reasons why we call them ritual.”
And here’s where it gets even more interesting — despite not actually “doing anything” or being essential, rituals are a true human universal. Anthropologists have found that all human societies – without a single exception – have traditional rituals.
Very few things are so universal. So clearly they’re important. And yet when anthropologists ask people why they do their rituals they always get the same response: a perplexed look followed by, “What the heck are you talking about? We just do them. It’s our tradition. It’s who we are. That’s what we do.”
This is what researchers call “the ritual paradox.” People see their rituals as important but they can’t explain why they do them. They’re logically pointless – yet emotionally vital and sacred.
And rituals are deeply wired in the human operating system. From the age of two children start developing rigid rituals, as any parent knows. You have to read the story the right way, Daddy. You have to give my bear a kiss before bedtime, Mommy. (Adorably, research shows young children believe birthday parties are what make you age. No party, you don’t get older. It’s the childhood equivalent of “if the French Fries are someone else’s, the calories don’t count.”)
So what’s the deal with rituals? No, they’re not magic. But they do have effects, and they do make our lives better, scientifically. Though they won’t guarantee the Rain God blesses us with a good harvest this year, they do consistently improve performance, reduce anxiety, and unite us as a community.
And I’d argue in the modern era we need rituals more than ever. These “causally opaque” activities can make a big difference in all our lives (and you don’t even need a haunted amulet to make them work.)
Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who runs the Experimental Anthropology Lab at the University of Connecticut. His book is “Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.”
Let’s get to it…
So why does tennis legend Rafael Nadal do all that crazy stuff? Here’s what he says:
Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.
Give that tennis player a gold star. Because he said exactly what the research says. We often do rituals to impose order on a chaotic world.
Rituals are structured and make our lives feel more predictable. And safe. Research shows rituals give us a feeling of control — even when we have little. They relieve anxiety and are an effective coping mechanism for the uncertain moments of life.
Studies show superstitious actions like saying “break a leg” or having a lucky charm really do improve performance in a range of tests by giving us confidence and making us persist. Basketball and golf players do better after performing their pre-shot rituals. And if you stop them from doing their rituals they’re more likely to miss.
So get yourself a morning ritual or a pre-work ritual. What’s the best one? It doesn’t matter. Remember, it’s “causally opaque.” It doesn’t have to “do” anything. How about a coffee ritual? Or a rain dance? Whatever makes you feel ready, relaxed and in control is perfect.
And that leads us to our next point. If rituals improve performance by relieving anxiety, well, you can also use them when you merely need to relieve anxiety…
Dimitris did a study where he induced stress in his subjects and then had half of them do a random ritual. What happened?
Ratings of anxiety were twice as high in those who did not perform the ritual. This is no small thing. Rituals were as effective in calming people down as the best psychiatric medications.
Michael Norton and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School found that rituals really did help people deal with grief after the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. Again, it was by giving people a feeling of control.
So next time you feel like you’re dragging around steamer trunks full of anxiety, try a ritual. You can do this by casting a spell. No, I’m not kidding.
Alison Brooks at Harvard had people perform a ritual that seemed straight out of a voodoo manual. And, sure enough, they subsequently did better on stressful tasks like math tests or singing in public.
Believe it or not, doing something a little insane can make you extra sane.
But rituals aren’t all about you…
Oxytocin is that bonding hormone you always hear about. What if you measured oxytocin during a group ritual like a wedding? It would go up, right? Makes sense.
But here’s the twist: when researchers tried this, the increase in oxytocin wasn’t the same for everyone present. You could predict the hormonal increase by their relationship to the other people involved. Everybody didn’t just “feel nice”; the magic worked the most for those emotionally closest to those involved in the ritual.
Friends got a small increase in oxytocin, relatives even more, the couple’s parents’ levels surged, and the bride’s oxytocin shot through the roof. According to the researchers, “the increase in oxytocin was in direct proportion to the likely intensity of emotional engagement in the event.” And this is why weddings are one of the most universal of all rituals – they bind us together as a family, down to the molecular level.
How does this work? You may have heard of the concept of “flow.” It’s when we are so absorbed in an activity that we become one with the action. Time stops and we’re effortlessly immersed in what we’re doing. We lose ourselves in it.
Collective rituals are like flow – but in reverse. Under the intensity of the emotions produced by the ritual, your “self” doesn’t vanish; it’s expanded to encompass the group. Instead of a dull family gathering that reminds you why you moved to another state, rituals blend you all together and you become symphonic. Psychologists call this “group identity fusion.”
After a moment of fusion like this, we see the group as us. When group members are threatened, we respond the same way as when family members are threatened. “You mess with my family, you mess with me.” We’re more likely to help and sacrifice to protect the tribe. Rituals don’t merely reveal group affiliation — they create it.
So how do we create some of our own communal superglue? It doesn’t take something as elaborate as a wedding. Try having a meal with friends – and everyone share your food. Make a little ritual out of it. Yes, it’s that simple
Sharing amplifies our emotional experiences. And sharing food creates a feeling of intimacy with friends. Eating from a shared plate promotes cooperation and reduces competition. And when we eat similar food together, we increase trust.
Don’t just nod your head. Text your friends and plan a dinner. I’ll wait. Go ahead. Do it. C’mon. Do it. “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” Do it.
(You can thank me later when your oxytocin overfloweth.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round everything up — and learn the biggest ritual benefit of them all…
Here’s how to use rituals to improve your life:
Rituals don’t actually accomplish anything. But without them, life is ghostly hollowness. The Venn diagram of no rituals and an unfulfilling life is a perfect circle.
Rituals may seem crazy but we’re all the products of evolution. Emotionally, these behaviors helped our ancestors and bound them together and so their value has piggybacked its way into our DNA.
Rituals provide remedies to problems humans have always faced. They have long been handed down to us by religions, governments, and groups. In fact, anthropologists theorize that they are the cause – not the effect – of many of these institutions.
In the modern world these institutions are weaker than they’ve ever been. But we still need rituals. Some old ones don’t fit into our new context. Some are outdated. But we can create new ones, for ourselves as individuals and for the groups we belong to. We need traditions and behaviors to make moments special and to weave us all into a single thematic braid of unity.
I’m glad you and I have our little ritual here: I write, you read. And we both learn.
Look for more opportunities to add ritual to your life and it will grow infinitely deeper, richer and more meaningful.
You can spend so much time searching for yourself. But in rituals you finally find yourself — in others.