Rituals Harnessed to Improve Self-control

Problems with following a diet, obesity, the inability to conquer addictions, the absence of a systematic approach to learning, insufficient physical activity, excessive drinking, narcotics dependency, risky sexual behaviours, uncontrolled spending and not saving money are just some of the results of poor self-control mechanisms, or what we used to refer to as willpower. The health-related and economic costs of these consequences are tremendous, both for individuals and society as a whole.

We could say without significant exaggeration that the discovery of a means of achieving full control over oneself is something of a „holy grail” for psychology, and it would solve the majority of problems tackled by the discipline of applied psychology. There is nothing to indicate that we are getting any closer to finding one, but recent decades have brought us a growing number of discoveries that at least partially allow us to enhance self-control mechanisms. One of them is the light which has been shed on the importance of rituals in boosting self-control.

Regardless of what corner of the world we are in, the entirety of culture as created by human beings is soaked through with rituals. We are constantly engaged in them, from the colourful and eye-catching rituals of religion, through the everyday rituals accompanying the preparation and consumption of meals and of being in the company of others, to such human activities as military service, all of which are almost entirely ritualized. Collective rituals promote social integration and group solidarity, facilitate the social transmission and reinforcement of social norms and align individuals’ belief systems with those of society. They are perceived as providing order and stability. Religious rituals have been linked to increased perceptions of control, including strengthening and instilling willpower for the achievement of virtuous goals. It is also suggested that they might perform a self-regulatory function.

Allen Ding Tian and his collaborators decided to examine whether enacting ritualized actions can enhance a subjective feeling of self-discipline, such that rituals can be harnessed to improve behavioural self-control.

More on their findings in my article published in the BPS Research Digest:

Performing meaningless rituals boosts our self-control through making us feel more self-disciplined

Also in the source article: 

Enacting rituals to improve self-control

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