The Power of Ritual Helps Us Prepare for ‘Difficult’ Situations

May 10, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
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Help Reduce Anxiety by Following Ritual

Different people manage difficult situations in their own way. For some it’s taking deep breaths. Others are helped by listening to a certain piece of music or visualising the event. Regardless of what it is, many of us take ourselves through a routine or ritual before a stressful situation to help manage our anxiety. Many of us know through experience how ‘nerves’ can get the better of us and poor anxiety management can sabotage our success. Think about a much-desired job interview.

New research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and discussed by Alex Fradera in the BPS Digest , highlights the power of such rituals in helping to focus the mind and manage the stress.

In this research, Alison Woods Brooks looked at impact of following rituals in two studies. In the first, participants were asked to sing in front of strangers. Anxiety and heartbeats were high. Those asked to practise a ritual, compared to those who did nothing, saw a marked drop in heart rate – and self-reported anxiety was reduced too, and a better quality performance delivered. The ritual was to draw a picture of their emotions, sprinkle salt on it, countdown out loud and then throw away the paper. In the second study, participants had to attempt the same set of maths problems. Some were told they ‘fun’ puzzles, others that it was “a very difficult IQ test”. The second group showed improved performance after completing a ‘ritual’ beforehand, suggesting that anxiety alleviation is key to performance.

So what is it that makes a ritual valuable in helping us reduce anxiety?

Some suggest that it’s because one is given the chance to express oneself emotionally and this is known to help reduce anxiety. But not all rituals followed are about self-expression. Brooks takes the definition of a ritual as being a fixed routine with symbolic significance. And this symbolism may be key. Brooks found that when participants were told that a procedure was just “a few random behaviours” it was less effective than when it was explicitly labelled as a ritual.

You may also like to take a look at a previous article  in which we explored how simply posing in a confident manner, makes one feel more confident.

So what can this tell us for those needing to ‘perform’ at work, or in an interview? Whilst some may dismiss rituals as irrational as Brooks suggests, those who enact rituals “may well outperform the sceptics who forgo them.”


Brooks, Alison Wood, Julianna Schroeder, Jane Risen, Francesca Gino, Adam D. Galinsky, Michael I. Norton, and Maurice Schweitzer. “Don’t Stop Believing: Rituals Improve Performance by Decreasing Anxiety.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137 (November 2016): 71–85.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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