How Rituals Boost Performance For Challenging Tasks
Athletes can be a crazy bunch.
They’re famous for pre-game rituals right before they go up to bat, play in a big game, or run a race.
We largely dismiss this superstitious. Maybe even silly. But new research says it’s not just all in their heads.
Due to what we might believe, psychology finds evidence that rituals boost performance.
The Effects of Rituals
The Harvard study revealed that pre-performance rituals have a real effect on the outcome of challenging tasks.
You may be wondering, how do you study rituals from a scientific standpoint?
Well, psychologists surprised participants by telling them that they’d have to sing a solo to a group of strangers. The classic song “Don’t Stop Believing” from Journey.
A scenario that would probably rattle most of us. The experts even tracked individuals’ heart rates. As expected, they saw a jump in their pulse the moment they were told they’d have to sing.
The researchers also invented a ritual of random behaviors to perform before singing. It consisted of drawing a picture, putting salt on it, doing a countdown, then throwing the picture away.
But here’s the question: Did it have any effect?
When compared against people who didn’t perform the ritual, those who did actually had heart rates return close to normal.
In addition, the singing performance was also monitored. Singers who performed the pre-song ritual had better quality performances in terms of pitch, volume, and note duration.
How Do Rituals Boost Performance?
The authors argue that the boost in performance comes down to one key factor.
From the study:
…decreased anxiety emerged as a unique and critical mechanism underlying the relationship between rituals and performance.
But the experts also noted that the symbolic nature of rituals also play a role.
Belief that a specific series of behaviors constitute a ritual is a critical ingredient to reduce anxiety and improve performance…
They saw that participants had bigger gains in performance when the actions were described as a “ritual”, as opposed to participants being told they were a “random set of behaviors”.
Rituals are kind of like a psychological placebo. But that placebo has a real effect on performance. Other research points out that superstitious acts can increase our level of self-efficacy. In other words, it boosts confidence in our abilities, translating to a boost in performance.
Does it Work For All Types of Tasks?
The study had people perform a ritual before singing to a stranger.
But would this really carry over to other challenging tasks?
The researchers wanted to test their theory, so they performed a second experiment with a different group of people.
They gave everyone a difficult set of math problems. They told one group that it was just a bunch of fun math puzzles, while the other group was told it was a difficult IQ test.
Both groups were given a ritual to do beforehand. However, they only noticed performance differences for the group that believed they were taking the IQ test.
While the results would need to be tested in other settings, this implies that rituals should work under having a ritual would work for other stressful, performance related situations.
Aren’t Rituals A Bit Silly?
Doing a pre-game ritual might seem superstitious, even silly. But the scientists say it can still give you an edge:
…although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.
So if you’re looking for that extra boost in performance, or maybe just a way to calm your nerves, finding your own personal ritual could do the trick.