How we can use the science of ritual to deliver purposeful change
In last week’s article we discussed the way in which the tough choices that accompany sustainability mean we need to move from offering choices based on what will deliver happiness to those that are delivering meaning. This means that ‘purpose’ will increasingly come to the fore as a means by which organisations and institutions can engage people to change their behaviour as we transition to Net Zero.
Arguably, marketing has traditionally been built on the principle of ‘delivering happiness’ – but what are the marketing principles for ‘delivering purpose’? This is an issue that has generated much discussion with “an awful lot of vitriolic criticism heaped on brand purpose” as Peter Field recently suggested. Despite this, his research found that 50% of well-executed brand purpose campaigns helped drive customer acquisition, compared to 30% of non-purpose campaigns.
What are the ways in which we as behavioural scientists can support the delivery of purpose to drive change? We make the case for ‘rituals’ as a means to facilitate change for policy makers and marketers but also communities. The important point about rituals is that they transform even very simple behaviours into expressions of meaning. The value of the behaviour is more than its instrumental consequential outcome – it is an expression and sharing of meaning for oneself and others.
Common examples of rituals are the kneeling and bowing of religious prayer which signals commitment to one’s faith; a team’s pregame ritual of setting out equipment in a particular way which then empowers them to together perform at their best . Another is the rites of a wedding ceremony that signal the bond between the partners. The reason these behaviours are important is as a result of the meanings they carry and convey. As Nicholas Hobson and colleagues point out, we can therefore see that these are the two elements of a ritual:
1. Actions and gestures that are segmented into chunks and arranged in a specific sequence that is adhered to
2. Symbolic value which gives the behaviour purpose or meaning
The everyday meaning of the term ‘ritual’ is somewhat fluid, but the meaning element implies that a ritual is something that we engage in collectively – it does not only sit in us as an individual but is shared as part of the community we inhabit. The meaning we give to behaviours is drawn from the culture in which we live and as such others can recognise it. So many things can be identified here from walks in the park, buying ice-cream while out to a cinema trip on a Friday night. The meaning of them extends beyond the instrumental actions to a wider set of meanings – such as celebrating our intimate relationships, marking the end of the working week and the start of leisure time, or honouring wider friendship groups.
Rituals are therefore ways in which we humans literally embody what is considered a valid order and values of a community. We physically internalize community knowledge, memory and identity.
Hobson suggests that rituals serve a number of regulatory functions – by this we mean they allow us to operate in a way that offers us balance and harmony. We can articulate this in a slightly different way for our purposes, by thinking of meaning as being a way that we achieve this, specifically:
· Social: Creating a connection to others
· Emotional: Shared feelings and emotions
· Behavioural: Sharing intentionality towards goals
We review each of these in turn and alongside them consider ways in which these can be used for the purposes of sustainability.
A strong notion in anthropology and sociology is that rituals serve the purpose of regulating our ability to connect with others. It is seen as way in which our private and public lives are brought together making it easier for us to participate fully in the social world by connecting with other group members, confirming our position in the group, and sharing in social conventions and cultural knowledge. In this way, shared behaviours can create a stronger feeling of connection while simultaneously transmitting social conventions.
We could see that the act of putting out recycling offers just this sort of ritual: it is not simply the act in itself (which is highly visible for many households at least) but carries meanings of what we consider is appropriate. Seeing other people doing the same things reinforces our behaviour, and we share a sense of purpose. We are signalling and affirming the importance of making a contribution however uncertain and minor that be in itself.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim set out the way that members of a society come together and synchronize their thoughts and behaviours through the use of shared slogans, signs, and movements. This leads to ‘collective effervescence’ a sense of ‘emotional communion’, which offers participants a means to develop a sense of belonging and shared beliefs. Surely this is what marketers and advertisers are good at, and can be used to good effect for sustainability. Advertisers often help people see how their behaviours can make them feel in the future – what we might call ‘emotional prospecting’.
If we again take the example of recycling, we can use advertising to show people how the collective nature of their activity can feel positive even if the act itself might feel a chore. For example, we saw the way in which synchronisation of thoughts and feelings associated with the UK’s clap for carers ritual (door stepping clapping in support of front-line workers at the height of the pandemic) created feelings of social belonging and shared beliefs.
Goal based rituals
Humans are the only creatures that are able to share their attention with someone else. When we interact with each other we do not only experience the same event – we know we are experiencing the same event as others. It is this knowledge that we are sharing our attention that changes what we do and what we are able to accomplish in collaboration with others.
This means we can much more easily share common ground, jointly pursuing common goals. On this basis, rituals help to bring to mind an ideal goal state (e.g. improved performance) and compare the current state with the desired outcome. The obvious example here is sport – there are many team rituals which focus collective behaviour in winning and are often called on in advance of the game taking place or when things are not going so well.
Again, we can see the way this can easily be used in relation to sustainability: so much of the challenge is about helping people to consider future states (given the impact of what we do now on the future of the world) and to behave in a collective fashion for positive outcomes. Rituals can support positive sustainability behaviours by helping people to understand their connections with others, developing a sense of collective action and intent to a positive future (or at least avoiding the otherwise likely catastrophic outcomes).
If, as we have argued, there is a need to move from ‘reward’ to ‘meaning’ to drive behaviour, then we need to unpack the mechanisms needed to deliver this. Research has shown the effectiveness of purpose-based marketing if it is executed well. However, it seems to us that there is a need for a stronger conceptual underpinning to determine more clearly what ‘good looks like’.
Behavioural science offers a tool kit to help understand the nature of the decision challenge – ritual has the components that are needed for delivering behaviour change through shared meanings. There is more work to be done on how to execute this, but we the opening case has been made.
In addition, we note that our focus has been on marketing communications. Bearing in mind that shared nature of meaning and rituals more specifically, then we consider that other routes offer real opportunities for brands and public bodies. To this end, next week we explore the largely under-tapped area of peer support.