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Rituals and Symbolic Gestures

In this season of the New Year’s resolutions, Jayashri Kulkarni from Monash University has some useful insight us to keep in mind.

In my patient’s case, unfortunately, I suspect her New Year’s resolution provided her with the opportunity to procrastinate. Despite comprehensive development of a smoking cessation plan, and extensive knowledge about the dangers to her health, she just didn’t want to give up smoking.

One of the major drivers of human behavior is the creation of rituals. Rituals are more than just habits; they have a much greater emotional significance to them. That is why religions create rituals to help manage believers’ practices. Rituals are not necessarily supernatural, but the emotional component makes them strong and meaningful.

This can be good and bad. Dr. Kulkami presents one example on each side. The negative part of rituals is that we can put off making changes in our lives that we don’t want to make. That is where New Year’s Resolutions come in. They are a form of ritual in our society. We all are expected to make a few and then at least try to stick to them. But that gives us an excuse in November. If we know we should quit smoking, we can make it our New Year’s resolution. Then we have two months before we need to worry about it. And in March or April when we relapse, we can say “Oh well, good try. Maybe I will be able to next year” and we have eight months of guilt free smoking.

But Dr. Kulkarni describes a good side as well. When we lose a loved one, the grief could potentially be overwhelming. Or at least heavily disruptive to our lives. But we can use ritual to allocate certain dates, such as the loved one’s birthday, as the day to deal with the grief. Then on the other days, we have an excuse to allow ourselves to get on with our lives without feeling guilty. “I am not done grieving, it is just not the right day for it.”

My Take

When rituals are solidified in our culture, they can be a powerful way to achieve long term goals. As anyone who has studied behavioral science knows, long term planning and behaving is one of the most challenging things to get users to do. Instant gratification has always been a powerful influence and I suspect modern (Western) culture has only made it worse, after getting better for a few centuries in between. I see a lot of people just paying lip service to the idea of a New Year’s resolution. They are going to eat better, quit smoking, start exercising, be more generous, and on and on, while never really having the intention to follow through. But saying it is your New Year’s resolution makes it an official attempt, which is all you need to alleviate your guilt. The data supports this – only 30% of US respondents last two weeks and less than half make it to July.

But the positive example that Dr. Kulkarni describes takes the opposite approach. If there is a negative behavior or feeling, we can allocate that to just a certain time or place, enabling us to lead happier and healthier lives otherwise. I think this is a good idea. Instead of quitting something cold turkey, constrain it just to certain times or places. That prevents the craving from being overwhelming. Instead of “I can never smoke again!!!!” it would be “I can’t smoke until . . . .”

Gretchen Rubin has a good version of this. She differentiates two personality types – abstainers and moderators. Abstainers should quit cold turkey but moderators would benefit from the ritual constraint version of behavioral change.

Your Turn

So what New Year’s resolutions have you made? When you made them, how serious was your commitment? How are you doing so far? Success? Failure? Somewhere in between?

Image credit: Heartlover1717

One thought on “Rituals and Symbolic Gestures”

  1. Speaking of smoking and rituals: (social) cigarette breaks are quite fascinating to. It’s a ritual that makes you go out every day at specific time to have a smoke with your colleagues, which makes quitting so much harder. But at the same time it may help prevent your habit of smoking from spinning out of control by associating specific times to the action.

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