What Makes Certain Everyday Rituals More Effective Than Others?

Francesca Gino answers

Here is what we know:

In a recent study conducted in Brazil, researchers studied people who perform simpatias: formulaic rituals that are used for solving problems such as quitting smoking, curing asthma, and warding off bad luck. People perceive simpatias to be more effective depending on the number of steps involved, the repetition of procedures, and whether the steps are performed at a specified time. These findings suggest that the specific nature of rituals may be crucial in understanding when they work—and when they do not.

In my research in collaboration with various colleagues, I find that even a ritual involving a set of random steps (e.g., Step 1. Draw how you currently feel on the piece of paper on your desk for two minutes. Step 2. Please sprinkle a pinch of salt on the paper with your drawing. Step 3. Please tear up the piece of paper. Step 4. Count up to 10 in your head five times) produces powerful effects on people’s behavior.

I think as long as people believe they are performing a ritual, our research suggests, the ritual is likely to affect their thinking, feelings, and behavior.

Francesca Gino is an associate professor of business administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School and the author of the book Sidetracked.