Rituals: The ties that bind

How the psychology of ritual can help build enduring behaviours

All human cultures have their rituals – repetitive behaviours that are imbued with meanings.  Rituals are so much part of our culture that we often are not aware of them unless we go to a different culture and struggle to understand a whole new set.  Of course, COVID has also fundamentally changed many of our rituals from shaking hands and kissing to greet people through to sharing meals with friends and family. 

Rituals are an important way in which we master our environment, helping us to create a sense of stability, community and common way of operating in the world.  Research suggests they help us to turn the world into a reliable place as they regulate us in important ways: emotional well-being, performance goal states (keeping us focused on our aims) and maintaining our social connection to others.  On this basis, behaviours that are part of rituals are more likely to be done regularly and consistently.

Unsurprisingly this has not escaped the notice of marketers and policy makers who are in the business of finding ways to changing behaviour.  In many cases the challenge is less about getting people to start doing something but to encourage people to perform behaviours more frequently and consistently.  For example, many people may at times eat healthily or do exercise to keep fit:  the issue is not that people are unclear what to do or indeed that they do fail to do it.  Instead, the challenge is often about how to encourage people to do these behaviours with sufficient frequency. 

So how can rituals be part of a behaviour change programme to help with this?

The components of ritual

Rituals have historically been examined using high level sociocultural perspectives, so relatively little thought has been given to the psychological processes at play. It is only recently that psychologists have started to uncover the causal mechanisms driving this familiar, universal aspect of human behaviour.  From work such as Nicholas Hobson and colleagues, we can 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

An example is setting the table for ‘Sunday Lunch’: this has a set of clearly understood behaviours about what and how to do certain actions and gestures (e.g. how the place settings are laid out) but also meanings (e.g. family / stability / communing).  We can see how this combination means that even the most ordinary of actions and gestures become transformed into symbolic expressions with their meanings reinforced each time they are performed.

Researching and building rituals

We need to consider both of these elements in turn when helping to build new rituals.  The first is quite tactical and to do with the micro considerations relating to the routines:  what are the occasions that are not being occupied and what needs to happen in order to occupy them?  This is fairly familiar research territory and we use our behaviour change framework MAPPS to understand what the barriers are to new ‘consumption moments’ being occupied. 

The second element has to do with meaning.  As people start doing the behaviour they bring with it meanings or identities (to use our MAPPS framing) from their wider context.  For example, someone who is eating plant-based meat substitutes for the first time may simply see themselves as a ‘Meat Eater’ who is lowering their meat consumption.  The behaviour is seen with a meaning of deprivation or substitution. Over time that meaning may evolve so that the behaviour takes on a new meaning; for example, they may start to see it as a wider identity of being a ‘Flexitarian’.   

The research needed here is an exploration of these social identities, seeing where new identities are created to rethink these behaviours (e.g. such as being a flexitarian) or the behaviours become part of other pre-existing behaviours (e.g. being a good citizen).

Tackling a behaviour change challenge through a rituals approach typically requires a granular understanding of the context in which current behaviour is taking place:  ethnography and other qualitative techniques are helpful here.  But survey work is also helpful to assess the scale of the opportunities identified by new consumption moments.  Semiotics and qualitative research can be used to explore ways to develop social identities relating to the behaviour.

There is a process-based interplay between the two elements of ritual (behaviours and meaning):  new rituals can be built by developing the usage contexts and the meanings hand-in-hand, carefully understanding how they interact with each-other so they work together. 

Final thoughts

Our practice has been to take this work on rituals and apply it to a range of client challenges across the public and private sector.  Our experience is that unpicking ritual into its component parts gives a highly actionable solution to a range of challenges to build sustainable behaviours.