Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Wednesday January 3, 2024: Maximum Shelf: The Ritual Effect

Scribner Book Company: The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions by Michael Norton

Scribner Book Company: The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions by Michael Norton

Scribner Book Company: The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions by Michael Norton

Scribner Book Company: The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions by Michael Norton

The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions

by Michael Norton

Many people use the words "habit" and "ritual" interchangeably, but Michael Norton, Harvard Business School behavior scientist and behavioral economics researcher, argues convincingly that they are very different things. A habit is an automatic, routine action; rituals are more spiritually valuable, he writes, serving as "emotional catalysts that energize, inspire, and elevate us." In his first non-academic book, The Ritual Effect, Norton presents an engaging and commonsense précis of his research into rituals, making a strong case for their importance in the personal and professional spheres as people mark milestones, form relationships, or simply "savor the experiences of everyday life."

Rituals used to be considered the purview of religion, Norton--who grew up in an Irish Catholic family--acknowledges, but in our less sacred time, he believes they are still essential. In the 1890s, sociologist Max Weber first warned of the "disenchantment" of a technologically modern age. Science may have demystified the workings of the world, but it cannot fully satisfy the human search for meaning and wonder. This is where secular rituals come in. "Rituals animate us, enhancing and enchanting our lives with something more," Norton asserts.

Norton and his team of researchers have interviewed tens of thousands of Americans about their reliance on rituals. He has discovered that rituals can be inherited from a particular culture or family, or spontaneously generated by individuals. They might not make any sense to outsiders. For instance, pianist Sviatoslav Richter never went on stage without his pink plastic lobster nearby. Mystery writer Agatha Christie closed each day by eating an apple in the bath (thus providing the book's intriguing cover image).

"The less practical the action is, the riper it is for a ritual interpretation," says Norton. Following psychologist Dan Wegner, he draws a distinction between what people literally do--which might strike others as random--and what they think they are accomplishing. Building on what Rohan Kapitány and Mark Nielsen called "the ritual stance," Norton asserts that one can interpret arbitrary actions as having emotional significance. An athlete might perform a bewildering sequence of taps, bounces, or touches before going onto the field or court, in an attempt to calm down or, alternatively, gear up for focused play. Rituals can also help performers cope with failure, Norton suggests, but if they go too far and the ritual becomes an obsession--if someone cannot execute their role at all without following certain exact steps--that can interfere with a career.

It is possible to turn any habit into a ritual through attitude and intentionality. If habit addresses the question of "what," ritual takes care of the "how," investing common activities with meaning. Two examples he gives are the average morning routine--showering, brushing teeth, and making coffee--which can be completed either robotically, just to get the tasks done, or in a precise order and with the mindset of wanting to start the day off right; and the weekly food shop, which couples might regard as drudgery but could instead view as an opportunity to spend quality time together.

The Ritual Effect has a logical structure, moving from a general discussion of ritual to the benefits for individuals, relationships, and businesses or nations. Particularly enjoyable is the chapter entitled "How to Savor," which goes deeper into food and drink rituals such as dinner parties, becoming immersed in wine culture, or just sharing a glass of wine. There is a huge difference, Norton notes, between being nourished by a scientifically formulated nutritional product like Soylent and dining well. For families, he suggests, holiday rituals, which often revolve around food and drink, are a way of saying "This is who we are." Even a family dinner can serve to reinforce those bonds.

By contrast, rituals can also commemorate endings. Norton recounts the bizarre story of how performance artists Ulay and Marina Abramović marked their break-up in dramatic fashion by walking the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, briefly meeting in the middle to embrace, and then continuing their separate ways. Death, of course, has sparked a wide range of mourning rituals, varying by culture, and influenced or interrupted by wartime and pandemics.

In the same way that individuals can celebrate beginnings and endings--rites of passage or acts of farewell--organizations and countries can encourage mass rituals that build solidarity. Workplaces might introduce team-building activities to "enliven the mundanity and monotony." Sports can bring people together across political rifts. In South Africa, reconciliation rituals have helped the nation to heal from the aftermath of apartheid. On a smaller scale, blended families or merged companies can create new rituals to bridge divides.

The book is comprehensive, covering every possible subtopic but never overwhelming readers because of its digestible sections and handy explanations of theories from psychology and other fields. Norton's absorbing narrative is packed with fascinating examples, and he shows how we can create simple rituals to enhance human lives. This is an accessible, practical work that deftly blends science and self-help, and is sure to attract fans of Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin. --Rebecca Foster

Scribner, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9781982153021, April 9, 2024

Scribner Book Company: The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions by Michael Norton

Michael Norton: 'Rituals Can Make Our Days Worth Remembering'

Michael Norton
(photo: Steph Stevens)

Michael Norton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and received the 2010 Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and a 2011 SAGE Young Scholars Award. His research focuses on the effects of social norms on people's attitudes and behavior, and the psychology of investment. His previous book, co-authored with Elizabeth Dunn, was Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (2013). The Ritual Effect, an exploration of the power of rituals--ones we perform, ones we can create--will be published by Scribner on April 9, 2024.

You're known for coining the term "the IKEA Effect." Can you briefly explain to us what that is and how it relates to your research on rituals?

Many of us keep an object we made over the years--a shakily executed watercolor, a leaky mug, a crooked coat rack--through moves from one house to the next, even as we jettison other possessions that have lost their emotional resonance. We might even display our creations in places of honor, though our spouses and partners tend to suggest relegating these to unused rooms of the house. This is what my colleagues and I termed "the IKEA Effect": we come to imbue the things we craft with special meaning, valuing them above what the market (and our spouses) would pay.

This research fed into my research on what we called "DIY rituals." We all know legacy rituals--widely practiced ceremonies handed down over time, like religious and cultural events. We saw that people were endlessly inventive in crafting their own rituals: when they lost a loved one, they went to a funeral, but they also created rituals, like the woman who told us she continued to wash her husband's car weekly. Our DIY rituals can come to have as much or more meaning to us as legacy rituals.

My cat engages in what seem like ritualistic behaviors: turning a certain number of circles before settling down to sleep, demanding food be served in particular places or ways, etc. Can animals enact rituals? Or would you differentiate instinct from ritual?

One key feature of rituals is that they include behaviors that are "non-instrumental"--that do not actually increase the likelihood of an event occurring. Rain dances, practiced by many cultures throughout history, are one example. While these ceremonies can serve to bond communities together in times of stressful drought, they do not instrumentally increase the chances of rain. So, one way to explore whether humans and animals differ in their proclivity to ritual is to examine the extent to which they imbue non-instrumental actions with meaning.

One study investigated "overimitation": our tendency to repeat another's actions that are irrelevant to a task. Children aged three to five watched an adult get a toy dinosaur by tapping the side of the jar with a feather and unscrewing the lid. Imitation would lead kids to unscrew the lid; overimitation, to try the feather. Many kids start with the feather tap, but follow-up research found a different group that did not: chimpanzees, who were more sensitive to which actions helped obtain the reward.

While animals can engage in behavior that appears to be ritualistic, they are less likely than humans to imbue actions that have no practical value with symbolic value--to turn the meaningless into the meaningful.

You discuss how risk and rarity make us more likely to turn to rituals. During Covid-19 lockdowns, daily and weekly rituals like taking a special walking route around the neighborhood, and meeting with friends online became extremely important. Why did the pandemic spark specific ritualistic actions, and do you think any of them will have lasted?

I signed up to write a book about rituals in January 2020. Little did I know that we were just months away from nearly every ritual humans practice being disrupted.

We had several options. The first was to simply stop doing our rituals altogether; this was relatively rare. The second, more common option was to modify our existing rituals, retaining their core while being remarkably flexible about the details. We always gathered with friends and played games; the uncertainty of the pandemic led us to not only desire those gatherings more strongly, but to find new and creative ways to make them happen. One person who used to bike to work every morning started biking down the hallway in his house every morning to his "office," re-creating his "commute."

As the pandemic ended, we saw people discontinue some new rituals, revert to some old rituals, but also retain some new ones. The permanent shift to more people working from home, for example, likely means that many people--like our hallway biker--are keeping their new "commuting" rituals in place.

"How do we progress without forgetting the past?" is one poignant question you ask. In Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, he remarks that moving to a vegetarian diet would involve jettisoning some food traditions (such as the Thanksgiving turkey) and creating new ones. To what extent are rituals inseparable from their occasions? How adaptable are they?

The pandemic provided a natural experiment in how we manage change to our rituals. You might think that, for all of the complaining about having to gather with family for Thanksgiving, the inability to gather would serve as a perfect excuse to just cancel it altogether. And while some families did, we saw efforts to get everyone together, even for just 10 minutes outside, or even just on a Zoom call, to celebrate a previously dreaded holiday.

The most salient features of Thanksgiving pre-pandemic were gathering everyone together in one place and eating the same bird. But people could carry on with Thanksgiving with neither of these in place. One key insight in our research is that the rituals that we think are sacrosanct are ever-changing, being adapted with new features--including new foods. When two families join together, for example via marriage, we see conflict and then compromise: a new ritual involving aspects of both family's old rituals (your pumpkin pie and our vegan stuffing). This new ritual can then last for decades... until a new family enters the picture.

Might the habit versus ritual dichotomy be paralleled by the difference between the Greek concepts of chronos (the march of clock/calendar time) and kairos (a deeper experience of time)?

Eating healthy, exercising, procrastinating less--all great habits. But habits tend to be black and white; they encourage an action, and we measure our success and chart our progress. Rituals are more Technicolor: they encourage us to feel, from joy or sadness to excitement or calm. Because rituals provoke emotions, they apply to more domains of life. Most people aren't trying to create habits of getting married or going to funerals.

For example, our research shows that team rituals play a role in imbuing mundane work tasks with meaning. Good habits at work might mean we get more done; adding rituals makes getting more done mean something. And so while habits get us through the day--clocking in and clocking out--rituals can make our days worth remembering. --Rebecca Foster

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