The power of rituals

How rituals, religion, and belief help us survive

Serena Williams is one of the best athletes of our time. She’s broken records, won numerous Olympic gold medals, and has seven Wimbledon championships under her belt. She also happens to be a bit superstitious.

“I have to use the same shower, I have to use the same sandals, I have to travel with the same bags,” she once said in an interview, describing her pre-game rituals as annoying but necessary. “I bounce the ball five times before my first serve and twice on the second.” In the rare case that she loses a game, Williams jokes that it’s not because she didn’t play well, but because she didn’t perform her rituals correctly.

She might be on to something. Researchers have found that rituals can help us feel less anxious – and, as this 2017 study suggests, perhaps even improve our performance. 

In the study,  researchers asked volunteers to perform a task after completing a ritual, and then to perform the same task without first completing the ritual.  They also measured the volunteers’ brain activity.  Turns out, task performance was better when they performed the ritual, and the volunteers were also less anxious after doing so. “Generally, the findings are consistent with the longstanding view that ritual buffers against uncertainty and anxiety,” the study concluded.

Sound familiar? During the pandemic, you’ve probably relied on your own set of rituals. Maybe it’s cracking a single hard-boiled egg at breakfast. Or doing yoga every day at noon. Maybe it’s a daily walk in your neighborhood. These small, mundane activities often come with a much larger purpose — they offer a sense of control.

Social psychologist Azim Shariff has looked at rituals in another context, examining their purpose for religious communities. He has studied religious rituals such as fasting and long pilgrimages, and how they serve as a signal to fellow believers. “You are showing, in a costly way, indications that you're a believer. It’s a hard-to-fake signal,” Shariff says. “If you weren't a true believer, you wouldn't go through all that effort.” Shariff’s hypothesis is that these costly religious signals helped to create the structure that allowed early civilizations to grow and prosper.

Over time, as our societies have grown and changed, some of our religious rituals have been replaced by other rule-enforcing structures, such as government institutions and the rule of law. Yet other religious rituals have remained constant across the centuries. The ones that have been preserved exist because they serve a useful purpose. “They allow groups to cohere around each other,” Shariff says. 

ON THE PODCAST

February 22: If you’ve taken part in a religious service, have you ever stopped to think about how it all came to be? How did people become believers? Where did the rituals come from? And what purpose does it all serve? This week, we bring you a favorite 2018 episode with social psychologist Azim Shariff. He argues that we should consider religion from a Darwinian perspective, as an innovation that helped human societies to thrive and flourish. 

February 25: We often hear from listeners who tell us that Hidden Brain has influenced their lives in positive ways. Today, we bring you a bonus episode about one listener story that particularly moved us. It’s a tale about two friends, and a decision that changed both of their lives.

March 1: How is it some social movements take off and spread, while others find themselves stuck? Why do some companies soar and become household names, while others flame out? Can you predict success and failure in advance, or is it all a matter of luck? In this episode, we look at how movements spread – and how social contagion can be harnessed to build a better world.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

STAFF RECS

“George Saunders has a new book called, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. I had to read the first chapter, which is about the Chekhov story ‘In the Cart,’ for the second time this morning. SO GOOD.” – Brigid McCarthy

“How can public health officials get more people to embrace COVID-19 vaccines? This study found that communications that reminded individuals a flu shot was ‘waiting’ or ‘reserved’ for them boosted vaccination rates by up to 11%.” – Tara Boyle

A thoughtful interview with Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who says we need to be open to the idea that a strange, interstellar object spotted in 2017 is evidence of technology from a distant world.” – Laura Kwerel

FOR THE SUPERFANS

Over the years, we’ve heard from so many listeners who want to support our show. And we’re excited to share that we now have a Patreon page where you can do just that! Your support is the fuel that allows us to create more Hidden Brain -- more podcasts, more radio shows, and more new projects like this newsletter. We’re so grateful for your interest in our work and the ideas that we explore on the show.

A MOMENT OF JOY

This dad and his toddler made us smile.

The paradox of knowledge

Why knowledge doesn’t always feel empowering

In a short story, The Beau Catcher, a bashful young girl named Genevieve finds confidence in a green hair ribbon she purchases from a local drugstore. The salesperson tells her:

“If you’re going to wear anything a little out of the ordinary, wear it like nobody had a better right than you. In this world, you gotta hold your head up.”

With her head held a bit higher, Genevieve walks down the street into a soda shop where a classmate approaches her. Flush with the confidence bestowed by her new ribbon, Genevieve carries the conversation beautifully and her classmate asks her to the school dance. It’s only later that she realizes the ribbon had fallen out of her hair when she left the drugstore. The confidence that overcame her had nothing to do with the green ribbon – it was in her all along. 

The moral of the story goes beyond the value of self-confidence – it also speaks to the paradox of knowledge. Had Genevieve known the ribbon had fallen out, she wouldn’t have been so self-assured. Knowledge is powerful, but can a lack of knowledge also be empowering?

That’s what researcher Jamie Napier discovered in a recent study on gender discrimination. She found that many women deny or downplay such discrimination. In fact, denial is strongest in countries where sexism is highest. Jamie thinks this may be something of a survival mechanism for many women, because it can be debilitating to acknowledge how much the deck is stacked against you. 

Clint Smith, a writer at The Atlantic, wonders about the possibility of having a healthier relationship with knowledge. Is there a way to face the truth without being consumed by it? “If you only ever consume the despair, you are more likely to embody and feel that sense of despair,” he says, “rather than the fullness of what it means to be human.” 

As a high school English teacher in Maryland, Smith used literature as a reprieve from the real world. His students were growing up in a community that faced many social challenges, and Smith wanted his classroom to be a bit of an oasis from those challenges. He often assigned books in the genres of fantasy and magical realism. “My classroom was a place we could lose ourselves in literature,” he says. “My hope was that literature could transport us to a place where it gives us a sense of escape.” 

Escape isn’t always possible, of course -- and the benefits it provides us as individuals may come at a cost to society. So how can we seek knowledge without being debilitated by it? For starters, check in with your emotions as you’re reading the news, watching difficult videos, or sitting through a heavy documentary. Recognize when you’re reaching the emotional and psychological threshold in which the information you’re consuming begins to desensitize you. 

“It’s an emotional oversaturation, and that oversaturation can turn into a sort of paralysis,” Smith says. “That’s something very different than the intellectual toolkit one can obtain from reading history, from reading policy, from reading sociology, from reading stories.” The complicated truth about knowledge is that it can be both helpful and harmful. To be empowered by knowledge, perhaps we first have to acknowledge this paradox.

ON THE PODCAST

February 15: Being able to see what's happening around us can help us make smart decisions. But knowledge – especially knowledge of how others perceive us – can also hold us back, mire us in needless worry, and keep us from achieving our potential. This week, we look at the paradox of knowledge.

February 22: If you’ve taken part in a religious service, have you ever stopped to think about how it all came to be? How did people become believers? Where did the rituals come from? And what purpose does it all serve? This week, we bring you a favorite 2018 episode with social psychologist Azim Shariff. He argues that we should consider religion from a Darwinian perspective, as an innovation that helped human societies to thrive and flourish. 

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“You could call it Danish hygge meets Marie Kondo’s decluttering; the videos prescribe minimalism and reveal the joy of quiet domesticity.”

Who we are versus what they think

How do stereotypes hold us back?

Maria S. works as a pharmacist for a large company. She spends her days filling prescriptions, talking to doctors, and consulting patients. Like any job, it can be stressful.  But at the end of the day, Maria says it’s her experience as a woman of color that makes the job emotionally exhausting. 

She regularly overhears patients commenting on her gender and race. And sometimes, these comments are not so subtle. Once, a patient told her, “He’s the only pharmacist whose advice I trust and value,” pointing to her white, male colleague.

Maria says that over time, these experiences have made her self-conscious. “I question my worth,” she says. “I question whether or not I did something wrong.” When she’s on the job, she can’t help but wonder: What do people think of me?

Psychologists call this stereotype threat: the psychological impact of being aware of the stereotypes about us. Claude Steele, a social psychologist and Stanford professor, is known for his work on this phenomenon. As one of only a few Black students at his grad school, he experienced stereotype threat firsthand. “I felt burdened by self-consciousness,” Steele says. “Overwhelmed by it. I was Exhibit A of a group who didn't belong there.”

That’s exactly how author and professional poker player Annie Duke felt at the poker table. “The first year that I played in the World Series of Poker main event, which was in 1994, three percent of the entrants were women,” Duke says. She battled a litany of stereotypes. “They didn't believe that you knew how to bluff, for example, 'cause that's a level deep in your thinking,” Duke said. “They thought that you were very straightforward in the way that you play because, you know, you're a girl.”

She came up with a solution. She would use these stereotypes to her advantage. “There are strategies that you can use against them,” she said. “Mainly you can bluff those people a lot.” Duke turned stereotype threat on its head, winning the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010.

Annie’s story is not to suggest that we should have to find workarounds for the stereotypes that exist about us. It can be anxiety-provoking, even debilitating, to focus too much on the preconceived notions others may have of us. But having some understanding of the fact that we all experience stereotype threat can help us feel more empathy for other people. “We need to have a language for coming together,” Steele says. “And I think this is part of it.”

As for Maria S., she’s still adjusting to her work environment, trying to find a way to feel less threatened by the stereotypes that linger around her. She reminds herself of what’s meaningful in her life, which is her family’s livelihood. She also feels grateful to have a partner who listens to these experiences and sympathizes with them. “It might take me a long while to get comfortable,” she says. “But sharing this story is a step towards getting there.”

ON THE PODCAST

February 8: Stereotypes are all around us, shaping how we see the world – and how the world sees us. On the surface, the stereotypes that other people hold shouldn’t affect the way we think or act. But our concerns about other people’s perceptions have a way of burrowing deep into our minds. This week, social psychologist Claude Steele explains the psychology of “stereotype threat.” 

February 15: Being able to see what's happening around us can help us make smart decisions. But knowledge – especially knowledge of how others perceive us – can also hold us back, mire us in needless worry, and keep us from achieving our potential. This week, we look at the paradox of knowledge.

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A MOMENT OF JOY

You’ve probably already seen this. But it would have been a crime for us to cite anything else as this week’s Moment of Joy:

Slow Down, You Think Too Fast

How to get better at second-guessing yourself

At some point in your life, someone has probably urged you to “go with your gut!” Conventional wisdom is that our first instincts are always correct. We treat intuition like a divine judgment call that will guide us in the right direction.

But our first thoughts aren’t always our best thoughts. Many studies, like this one published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have found that when students rethink and change their answers on a test, those answers are more often correct than incorrect. In other words, “trust your gut” might not be the best advice after all.

“A lot of times intuition is just subconscious pattern recognition,” says social psychologist Adam Grant. “And the patterns that you’re recognizing from the past may not be relevant to the problem you’re solving right now.” Grant argues there’s value in second-guessing your thoughts, opinions, and beliefs – even when you’re not taking a standardized test.

If you find yourself reading this and feeling resistant, it might be your “totalitarian ego” talking. There’s a little voice inside us that will avoid being wrong at all costs – even if it means rejecting new information, refusing to apologize, or shooting down perfectly good ideas. Your inner dictator wants to protect you from the pain of being wrong. What it doesn’t realize is that there are advantages in admitting your mistakes and sitting with uncertainty.

Science provides a good model for the virtues of second-guessing. In an interview with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), philosopher Edgar Morin said,

“Science philosophers have specifically shown us that dissension is an inherent part of research, which actually needs it to move forward. ” 

Rethinking is a crucial part of scientifically understanding the world. Now, even scientists are sometimes held hostage by the totalitarian ego. How can we all become more open-minded to criticism and second-guessing? Start by cultivating what Grant calls a “challenge network.” That is to say, surround yourself with people who question you, disagree with you, and point out holes in your thinking. Remember: You can disagree without being disagreeable.

Also, try to separate your beliefs and opinions from your values. When something becomes a big part of who you are, it can be hard to change your mind about it. Try building your identity around values instead – generosity, equality, integrity. It’s a lot easier to open your mind to new information when you build your sense of who you are around what you value, rather than what you believe.

ON THE PODCAST

February 1: The ability to change your mind is an important skill. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant believes mental flexibility is a skill we can learn. This week, we explore why it’s worth challenging what we think we know. 

February 8: Stereotypes are all around us, shaping how we see the world – and how the world sees us. On the surface, the stereotypes that other people hold shouldn’t affect the way we think or act. But our concerns about other people’s perceptions have a way of burrowing deep into our minds. This week, social psychologist Claude Steele explains the psychology of “stereotype threat.” 

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Risk Versus Reality

Are we afraid of the wrong things?

When she published the novel Severance in 2018, Ling Ma couldn’t have predicted how her fictional world would foreshadow the COVID-19 crisis. 

Severance takes place in New York City, where Shen Fever, a fungal infection originating in China, is quickly becoming a concern. In the beginning, day-to-day life is somewhat normal. Workers continue going to the office. Employers hand out “personal care kits,” complete with N95 masks and latex gloves. But soon enough, Shen Fever spreads uncontrollably. People begin to leave the city. Broadway shuts down. The country institutes a travel ban. Ma writes,

“In its initial stages, Shen Fever is difficult to detect. Early symptoms include memory lapse, headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Because these symptoms are often mistaken for the common cold, patients are often unaware they have contracted Shen Fever. They may appear functional and are still able to execute rote, everyday tasks. However, these initial symptoms will worsen.”

Disaster narratives can be fun to read — even when we’re living through one. Stories help us understand difficult times, but they also shape how we respond to challenges and risks. A recent study found that the more horror films people watched before the pandemic, the better psychologically prepared they were to deal with it. Of course, it’s also possible that the movies we watch and the books we read can distort our perceptions of risk. 

“Our sense of risk is influenced by the direct experiences – and indirect experiences – we have with the media, such as film or the news media,” says Paul Slovik, a psychologist who studies the disconnect between our assessments of risk and the dangers we face in our everyday lives. “And that’s very powerful in influencing us.”

This is why, after watching a movie like Jaws, people become terrified of swimming in the ocean. As much as we like to believe we value logic, emotions trump reason when it comes to our fears. 

Our emotions can also cause us to downplay legitimate risks. Take, for instance, our “optimism bias.” As writer A.C. Shilton puts it in the New York Times, “Optimistic bias is the reason we order a side of bacon even though we know diets high in processed meats correlate with a higher risk of colon cancer. Surely colon cancer happens to other people, right?” Shilton adds that optimism bias is particularly strong in individualistic societies, like the United States. 

Ling Ma warned us about our own fallibilities when it comes to assessing risk. In Severance, she writes, “A second chance doesn't mean you're in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder.”

ON THE PODCAST

January 25: Around the world, people are grappling with the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. How do our minds process risk, and why do different people reach different conclusions about the same threats? This week, we talk with psychologist Paul Slovic about the disconnect between our assessments of risk and the dangers we face in everyday life.

February 1: The ability to change your mind is an important skill. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant believes mental flexibility is a skill we can learn. This week, we explore why it’s worth challenging what we think we know. 

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