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On The Power of Rituals

Q&A with Michael Norton, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions

Michael Norton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He is the author of the new book, The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions (coming out today!! April 9th).

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I had the pleasure of engaging in a wide-ranging conversation about the power of rituals in promoting human well-being. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Habits & rituals: Similarities and differences

Annie: I want to start from the beginning with the book’s subtitle, From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. Obviously, a lot of bestsellers have been written about habits, like The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habits by James Clear. Can you help us understand what the difference is between habit and ritual?

Michael Norton: One of the funny things about habits and rituals is that two people can be doing the exact same thing, and for one of them it’s a ritual, and for the other one it’s a habit. It’s very subjective. You have to ask people, literally, “When you tie your shoes, do you care about the manner in which you tie them? Is it important to you to do left shoe double knot, right shoe double knot, or could you just do it in any order that you want, and you don’t care?” Some people say, “I don’t care. I just need to get my shoes on.” That’s a habit. You put your shoes on every morning, you need to do it to get out of the door. Other people will say, “I need to align the tongue of the shoe in this special way.” That’s getting more toward a ritual. It does something for them beyond just getting the shoe on. They’re like, “Now my feet feel ready to go.”

These are the tiniest differences that I’m talking about. The little ones are the ones that I’ve been interested in, the everyday kind.

Annie: Broadly, are you saying that for something to be a ritual, I, as an individual, have imbued it with an emotion or meaning?

Michael Norton: Yes. It’s beyond just the action.

Annie: Does it need to be intentional?

Michael Norton: Intentionality is often present with rituals, but it’s also often present with habits.

Annie: The way that I’ve always thought about habit, and I could be wrong here, is that you have a period of intentionality, which is the habit formation part, and then it becomes automatic. Then, it’s not necessarily intentional anymore. I have to force myself to go to the gym every single day for a while, and then it becomes habit, and I just go to the gym. But you’re saying rituals don’t necessarily stay intentional. Is it that rituals are always intentional, and habits sometimes are rituals, sometimes intentional and sometimes not? Should we just not pay attention to intentionality?

Michael Norton: No. I think intentionality is important. For habits, you intentionally do them and then they become automatic and then they just carry on, that maps on to very little of the human experience. This is a random example, but I was talking to this journalist, and she was super anti-ritual. She said she had tea every morning, but there was nothing ritualistic about it. She just likes to have tea. She then asked, “How would I make it a ritual if I wanted to?” I said, “I don’t know you, but some people will have a specific tea that they associate with a family member, or they have a mug that they insist on using that has meaning.” She started to laugh and said, “Oh my god, I use the same mug every morning. And it’s a mug that I got with my daughter when we were watching elephant seals giving birth. And she said, “Last week my husband brought me tea in a different mug, and I was like, ‘take it away.’”

Clearly there was way more meaning, not just that drinking tea means putting it in your face.

Annie: Would you say that a habit can exist without a ritual, but a ritual can’t exist without a habit?

Michael Norton: Typically, a ritual is in the service of something. It might be in the service of generating an emotion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like you’re trying to accomplish a task. Habits typically are the task itself.

Annie: That’s kind of what I’m saying. She’s having tea. You can’t deny that’s a habit. She has tea every morning, but then it turns out that there was a ritual element as well, and you have a ritual. It feels like you can have a habit without a ritual.

Michael Norton: For sure.

Annie: Some habits also have a ritual aspect to them. Can you have a ritual without a habit?

Michael Norton: Also, for sure.

Annie: Let me know if I’m imagining this correctly. In a Venn diagram where we have “ritual” and “habit,” they’re going to intersect, and the area of intersection is going to be pretty large. Then, we’re going to have a bunch of habits that don’t involve ritual, as well as a bunch of rituals that don’t involve habits. Maybe that’s a little bit where some of the confusion comes from, because there is quite a bit of overlap between them. In the cases where they overlap, it sounds like it has to do with this question of meaning.

Michael Norton: Yes, exactly.

Annie: Habits have an intentional component to them. You have to maintain the habits. So, intentionality doesn’t make it a ritual. It’s, “What does it mean to you?” The journalist woman rejected the mug of tea from her husband because drinking her morning tea from a particular mug had meaning for her.

Michael Norton: Yep.

Annie: Okay, we’ve settled it. This is good. LOL.

Why are we reading about rituals?

Annie: We know what habit is giving you and that you can intentionally create new habits. You can say, “I have a particular goal. There’s this set of habits that I have that are causing me to lose ground from achieving my goal. Let me go out and I’ll go buy one of those habit books and I’ll change my habits to achieve my goals.” We know that habits are a pretty powerful way to help you do that. What is the power of rituals to make your life better and to help you to achieve the things you want to achieve beyond what habits already provide?

Michael Norton: Rituals can be amazing tools for generating emotions. It would be amazing if humans were built where if we wanted to feel a certain way, we could just feel that way at will. If I wanted to feel calm, I could just go calm. But we’re not. We’re like, “I’m sad. I wish I were happy.” We have to do something to change our moods. When you look at the domains in which people use rituals, they’re nearly always using them in the service of some emotion.

We did this research years ago and we embarrassingly called it “emodiversity,” which was a huge mistake. But the idea was that having a variety of emotions is good for our wellbeing. All happy is not a great life. It’s a weird life. We need a little sadness to grow and whatever. And rituals are amazing at generating emotions. They’re very effective and they’re very versatile. People use rituals at funerals to grieve and at weddings to celebrate. They use rituals to get amped up and they use rituals to calm down. They use rituals to connect with people and they use them to divide from people.

Of course, we can use other things, but a cool thing about rituals is that they can generate emotions that would otherwise be very hard to experience. Like awe. You could drive to the Grand Canyon and get awe, but it’s hard for me to do it today in my office. Yet when we do religious rituals, for example, they can bring us to a state of awe.

The breadth of rituals: Pre-existing cultural, societal traditions to personal creations

Annie: Obviously, from the few examples we’ve discussed, ritual can encompass behavior rooted in culture, history, and tradition, like funerals. But it also includes drinking your morning tea from a mug that has meaning to you – even when you don’t realize that you’re engaging in a ritual. Can you speak to the “standard” or “legacy” rituals versus the “personal” or “idiosyncratic” rituals?

Michael Norton: You’re correct that rituals can be long-standing or brand new, as well as standardized or individual in nature. And those things can exist in endless combinations. For instance, take funerals. Every culture and religion has their thing. It could last a day, three days, five days, a month. It varies a lot from culture to culture. But if you ask people, which we have, “Think of somebody who passed away – what did you do?” People say a funeral, whatever their faith was. Then, they say the things that they also personally did, and they’re very specific, idiosyncratic things, and they do them over time.

For example, many people use music. Someone will say, “I’ve listened to my mom’s favorite song on the way to work every day for a year now.” Of course, there’s no ancient text that says, “Use Spotify for your grief.” The thing that I got so interested in was that people are just making up their own rituals all the time. I’m no expert in the legacy kind, tradition and religion. There are a million people who know way more about that. But this particular kind of ritual that people are literally generating themselves, that’s the kind that I got excited about. They are “the everyday kind,” I guess. They’re probably not as meaningful as a tradition with hundreds or thousands of years of history. And yet we use them to accomplish stuff.

Rituals and connectedness, distinctiveness, and identity

Annie: I’m thinking about what you’ve mentioned about rituals establishing a connection, like listening to your mom’s favorite song. It connects you with the emotion of grief. It also connects you to someone you’ve lost. A celebration like Thanksgiving comes to mind as creating multiple connections. There’s the broader ritual, which is that Americans do this thing. Around Thanksgiving, families are creating these traditions which are the connection to the past as well, which might just be like, the items they serve or the dishes they use or where people sit at the table. It’s not just the emotions that we’re feeling, but the connection to other people around you or who have come before you.

Michael Norton: That’s another amazing emotion that rituals can give us. Feeling connected to a past is an awesome feeling and it’s hard to get if I just sit here and try to do it. And to your point, there is no standard Thanksgiving really. We’re all freelancing.

Annie: I was really interested in what you’ve written about ritual and identity because we can think about identity and tribe and belongingness and distinctiveness and things like that because sometimes when I hear what other people serve for Thanksgiving, I’m horrified. I don’t have any connection to it and I can’t help but thinking it’s “wrong”.

Michael Norton: The phrase I love is, “Who does that?” You call your family and you’re like, “You can’t believe what these people are doing at Thanksgiving.”

Annie: And that gets us into the issue of someone else doing Thanksgiving “wrong.” They’ve shown themselves to be of a different tribe. In that sense, they’re like “other.”

Michael Norton: I think that the good version of rituals is that if I do them, I feel good or some positive emotion or I feel connected with you. The bad version is that they’re not just good; they’re right. That’s when they get dangerous. Because I can love my own things and it’s no problem, but as soon as I’m like, “Mine is the right one,” now we’re going to have a problem with anybody who differs.

Annie: Some of these rituals we’ve discussed become part of your identity. We know that when it comes to identity, the way that we think is to confirm our beliefs, to make sure that we’re consistent and we feel valid, internally and externally. Then, because of this connection to other people in your tribe, past and present, identity is wrapped up into that. Am I correct that it’s common that people say, “Mine’s right and yours is wrong.”? That it’s not rare that someone says, “I have this ritual and it’s right. And if you’re doing something else, you’re just insane.”

Michael Norton: Even when we have people engage in completely novel rituals that we’ve just made up, if someone starts to do it differently, people are mad at them. I just did a talk where I had people do this ritual together in a crowd, and it’s like, clap at the same time, stomp at the same time. But I don’t lead them through it, so people can be a little bit off from each other. And people are so frustrated. Literally, “Those people over there aren’t doing it right, because over here, we’re all clapping together.” And you can hear an errant clap and the instant rage that people have, even though it’s made up and they’ve never done it before. If this alone is already pissing me off, you can imagine how it really upsets people if you add in any history or culture or religion.

Annie: This reminds me a little bit of the research with the Robbers Cave Experiment from the 1950’s. The Eagles and the Rattlers. You put people on teams and then you see how much they hate those on the other team immediately. They’ve been on the team for a second, and you’ll start to see these tribal behaviors that have to do with othering, for example. It sounds like rituals can be the same. You can invent a ritual that clearly was not derived from meaning for the person, because you just made it up. And as soon as the person’s assigned to the ritual with other people, you start to get into this idea of violation.

Michael Norton: In fact, we’ve done experiments where we do both: randomly assign you to a group, and then your group has a ritual associated with it or not. You get, “I hate your group, we’re red team” or whatever. But adding a ritual? Now they’re not just a different team, they’re wrong. It’s amping up these instincts.

Using the power of rituals for good: Dealing with anxiety, stress, and uncertainty

Annie: Let’s shift back to ways we can use the power of rituals for good. I want to start with sports. I know for myself, when I play tennis, I bounce the ball the same number of times each time I serve, and it’s a ritual that’s meant to bring me into a flow or meditative state. To your point, if I bounce the ball three times and serve, it doesn’t mess me up. It’s that I am intentionally trying to bounce it four times and do the same thing each time, walk up to the line the same way, whatever. Thinking about Rafael Nadal here, he obviously has very elaborate rituals around where his water is placed and what he is doing on his return and serve. Taking Nadal as an extreme example, but across sports in general, what are rituals doing for you and what can you do in terms of intentionally bringing them into practice? What do they offer the athlete? Do they improve performance?

Michael Norton: This is random, but my daughter came to a talk that I gave on this stuff and her feedback consisted of just one question. Nothing about all I had to say about weddings, funerals, the human experience or whatever. All she wanted to know was, “Does that tennis guy really pick his wedgie?” I said, “Yes, he actually does.” She was, like, “Cool, cool.”

To answer your question, one of the things that’s super clear is that in moments of stress and uncertainty, people turn to ritual. In human history, not to overclaim, but there does seem to be a strong link between uncertainty and ritual. There’s been some very cool stuff written about baseball players, observing that batters have more rituals than fielders, because when you’re batting, you fail most of the time. If you are successful one out of three times, you’re an amazing player. But in the field, the success rate is 98 or 99%. There are fewer rituals. It’s correlational, but fewer rituals out there when there is less certainty.

It’s a very nice case where the situation is what’s prompting the ritual. There’s other cool research that when people are doing public speaking, the more stressed they get, the more ritualistic their movements get. They’re more likely to repeat certain actions and things like that. There too, you see that as the pressure amps up, we turn toward these rituals.

Do rituals slow things down in stressful moments?

Annie: You mentioned the higher the stress for speakers, the more you see these rituals. Within sports, you’re seeing rituals on the batting side, which is very uncertain and higher stress than on the fielding side. We can think about the ritual lowering stress, helping calm us down. But slowing us down seems important as well. Can you talk about that, and is that true for just sports or speaking or those kinds of things? Or is this true across the board?

Michael Norton: I don’t know for sure, but here are my thoughts. There is lots of research on this idea that when you are anxious or stressed, a go-to strategy for people is to tell themselves to calm down. “Just calm down.” That doesn’t work.

Annie: Doesn’t that make you more anxious?

Michael Norton: Exactly. If you’re anxious and you say, “calm down,” you can’t calm down. And now, in addition to being anxious about the thing, you’re also anxious that you can’t calm down. I forget who the researchers are, but one of the things they show is that one of the things that rituals help us do is not get so far down that loop, because we literally don’t have enough working memory to be anxious about being anxious about being anxious. It’s the least magical spiritual explanation for why rituals might work: They occupy enough of our mind that we can’t go to the crazy place that we would otherwise go to. I do think there’s something there, that it’s bringing you from the cloud of anxiety back into the moment a little bit in a way that’s less constrained, or less scattered, or more centered.

(Illogical) imitation in ritual behavior

Annie: Rituals have a purpose and they have a meaning. But I assume sometimes people are parroting rituals. I could imagine a tennis player doing a bunch of the Nadal stuff, but it’s not going to do the same thing for them that they think it does for Nadal. They think the action is what’s making Nadal such a great player, except that it’s the meaning in the action for Nadal. They’ve missed the meaning link. It’s a little bit like survivorship bias. “If I get only 5 hours of sleep and get up at 4 a.m. like I read such-and-such billionaire does, I can be a billionaire.”

Michael Norton: There’s this amazing research with kids. They show a grownup getting a toy out of a jar, and all you have to do is unscrew the lid of the jar, and then you can get the toy out. But in some of the versions of it, the grownup will tap the jar with a feather and then unscrew the lid and take the toy out. Little kids seeing that version, before unscrewing the lid and taking the toy out, will tap the jar with the feather. In fact, that research suggests that the more random the behavior is, the more likely we are to think that it must be important. Why the hell else would you unscrew a jar by first tapping it with a feather?

Do rituals help you achieve a flow state?

Annie: Do rituals help you achieve a flow state?

Michael Norton: We haven’t looked at that. Dimitris Xygalatas is another guy who studies rituals. He mainly studies preexisting rituals and he often goes to very interesting populations. He looks at things like the ability to withstand pain. Ritual can get you into a place where you can withstand more pain. It’s not quite flow, but where it moves you to a different spot psychologically that then permits other things to happen. He also wrote a book with a somewhat similar title, Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. His stuff’s very cool, and I think he would say that his research suggests that, yes, rituals are one of the things that we can use to get to flow.

Annie: I’m thinking about, for example, a religious ceremony. When you’re in church, you kneel down, you stand up, you open the book. There is call and response. There are all these things, and it feels like when you’re really in it, maybe not doing it as habit, but actually doing the ritual, you’re clearing out everything else. That’s what I mean by flow. You can push aside all the other stuff that’s happening because you are just in the ritual.

Michael Norton: People do experience that, if you ask them what was happening with them, but we don’t have research that says, “Therefore, they’re immune from attention probes.” But subjectively speaking, absolutely. When somebody says, “I felt connected to a higher power,” I don’t care if you’re atheist or not, that’s an amazing feeling. Again, you can get that maybe while you’re watching tv, but I bet it’s harder to get there than engaging in these kinds of rituals that humans have been working on for thousands of years.

The practical application question

Annie: Let’s imagine someone comes to you and says, “Michael, all your research about rituals is so interesting” – which it definitely is, by the way – and they tell you they’re obsessed with living their best life. They’ve read all the books about habits and habit change. Then, they ask you the practical takeaway question: “I want to understand, for me personally as an individual, how do I take what you know about rituals to really improve my life?”

Michael Norton: I usually think about it less as “here’s something you should add,” and more about taking an inventory of what you’re already doing. First, there is something about recognizing that you’re already doing rituals that then deepens their meaning to you. It sounds very touchy-feely, but it does happen. Even like with the elephant seal mug, it changes the way you interact with it.

Another person I was talking to told me they don’t have any family rituals. I said, “Oh, some families do. My family does gratitude. At the beginning of every dinner, we ask, ‘What are you grateful for?’” It’s not like we came up with that, of course, but that’s what we do. When you do that, basically, you asking, “What do you value? What are you trying to tell your kids is important?”

This person then said, “Actually, you know what? When someone has an accomplishment, we write it on a little piece of paper and put it in a fishbowl. Then, at the end of every year we take them out and read them to each other.”

“That’s a ritual!”

She agreed and told me, “I’m really glad we do that, and I’m going to make sure we keep doing it.”

There’s this couple that we asked, “What do you do that’s special?” They said, “We clink our silverware, and then we eat.” It’s an adorable thing to do and not like they’re adding a six-step eating ritual. This is us. This is what we do. I often think about rituals more like that, that they’re these moments that you can savor a little bit or be a little more present. When I was 25, I would have thought, “That is complete nonsense. But as I get older, I get it.

Anything that helps you. Take eight seconds to be in it or be with your kids or be with whoever. I do think that’s one of the things that rituals can do for us. They’re a little nudgy kind of thing to savor or find meaning or appreciate what you have. That, for me, is always where I go. It’s more about the “smaller moments” and “best life” kind of thing, and less about, “Do this the next time you have a test.”

Annie: Let’s go back to my tennis example for a moment. To your point, you wouldn’t necessarily tell someone what their ritual should be, like “You should have a ritual to meditate.” It’s not one-size-fits-all. My tennis coach said, “Figure out how you want to walk up to the service line, or out how many times you want to bounce the ball. Figure that stuff out and then do it every single time.” I suppose that, as a coach he is recognizing, to your point, that’s a high stress situation. He’s not telling me what my ritual needs to be. He’s just suggesting that I have one.

Developing and fostering workplace rituals

Annie: We’ve talked mostly about the rituals from the perspective of an individual. I know you’ve done a lot of research about using rituals to improve the work environment and workplace performance. Can we wrap up with you sharing some thoughts about that?

Michael Norton: With teams at work, sometimes managers will say, “Give us the ritual they should do so that they’re happy at work.” We explain that they’re not going to like it if you try to impose something like the group clapping-stomping exercise. But what we do is we give them time and space. Think about your team. Do you have inside jokes? Do you have little things that you do together? Then, build those into something more meaningful. I do think it’s better to give people the space and the idea and then being a little hands-off on how exactly they’re going to get there.

Annie: Do you have any examples on the work side, where you’ve come across a team or helped the team to develop more cohesiveness through the development or the fostering of ritual within the team?

Michael Norton: This is a mundane example, but for some reason it really resonates with me. We surveyed a bunch of people on teams. One person basically said, “What my team does is, each day of the week, one of us is responsible for lunch and each person treats everybody on that day. You can bring in food that you like or that other people like, or that might be from your culture, it might be whatever.” The reason that it resonates with me is that one day a week, you’re taking care of the team, and all you’re doing is eating lunch. Everybody’s going to eat lunch. It’s not an extra thing. It’s not more expensive. But what they’re doing is saying, “We take care of each other on the team and, by the way, we’ve been doing it for years and we’re going to keep doing it for years.” It’s a very subtle thing, and I bet they’re foodies, so it makes sense for them to do food instead of whatever else they might do. Those are the kinds of things that I love to find, tiny tweaks of what you’re already going to do, which is just put food in your mouth, they found a way to make it something our team does. And by the way, other teams don’t do this. They just go out for lunch by themselves.

Annie: That’s the distinctiveness piece, right?

Michael Norton: Yeah.

Annie: This brings up a question for me on the work side and the leadership side. You’ve been very clear that the ritual has to have meaning. Sometimes, you can impart more meaning to it just by bringing it to consciousness. The woman who said, “I don’t have rituals …. Oh, I have tea every morning, but that’s just a habit.” You got her to realize, “there’s actually a lot of meaning in what I do.” That then creates more meaning. And it’s a ritual she created herself, so she’s endowed to it. Where do things like corporate retreats and doing trust falls fit with that?

Michael Norton: In developing workplace rituals, there’s an immediate negative reaction if you mention tools like “trust falls” or “corporate retreats.” People are like, “Oh, that is literally the worst thing that happens to me.” But when I hear that, I think, “The worst thing? Compared to what? Compared to northing?” I’m not sure if it’s better. I do think that using the ritual of a corporate retreat and even something as silly as a trust fall, there’s still something very powerful about having to close your eyes and fall back and trust these people to catch you, even though it’s completely ridiculous.

To your point, I do think that when people can imbue it with their own meaning, then it will have more than it might otherwise have. But certainly, rituals that we receive as tradition, that are inherited, they have a huge effect on us. Some of us might reject them, but others of us are like, this is the most important thing in my entire life. It’s not that the top-down kind can’t be really meaningful and important, but for me it’s just bottom-up kind are more powerful. Also, yes, they have a different role that they play.

Annie: It’s an awesome book. I’m very excited for you and your readers. I hope it does amazing! It’s been great chatting with you.

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