The Power of Rituals in Life, Death, and Business

Experimental research by Michael I. Norton, Francesca Gino, and colleagues proves multiple benefits of using rituals. Not only do they have the power to alleviate grief, but they also serve to enhance the experience of consuming food—even something as mundane as a carrot.
by Carmen Nobel

All over the world, people in pain turn to rituals in the face of loss—no matter if it's the death of a loved one (dressing in black, for example), the end of a relationship (burning old love letters), or the crushing defeat in a Little League baseball game (graciously shaking hands with the winning team). But what's the point?

Behavioral scientist Michael I. Norton became interested in mourning rituals after reading Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering, which describes elaborate ways that parents, spouses, children, and friends dealt with the massive loss of soldiers during the American Civil War. It got him to wondering whether rituals were merely a traditional part of the grieving process, or whether they truly alleviated grief.

"We see in every culture—and throughout history—that people who perform rituals report feeling better," says Norton, an associate professor in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School. "But we didn't know if the ritual caused the healing."

“We see in every culture—and throughout history—that people who perform rituals report feeling better."

What followed was a series of experiments in which Norton and fellow HBS Associate Professor Francesca Gino found that rituals indeed alleviate and reduce grief, even among people who don't inherently believe in the efficacy of rituals. Further experiments showed that ritualistic behavior also enhances the experience of consuming food—including food as mundane as a carrot. Future experiments will delve into whether rituals affect productivity and morale in the workplace.

A Sense Of Control

Norton and Gino teamed up to conduct a series of grief experiments, which they describe in the paper "Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries," forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

For some, rituals enhance the wine-drinking experience.In one experiment, the researchers set out to determine whether rituals led to an increased sense of control, and whether that sense of control served to alleviate grief. To that end, they asked 247 individuals (recruited from's Mechanical Turk marketplace) to write about either the death of a loved one or the death of a relationship. Some participants were asked to include a description of a ritual they performed after suffering the loss; others were not.

Norton and Gino were surprised to discover that the majority of the recounted rituals were neither religious nor communal. Rather, they were personal, private, and occasionally angry—but in a controlled way. "We observed some amazing rituals," he says. "One woman wrote about gathering all the pictures of her and her ex-boyfriend, taking them to the park where they met, and tearing them up-she made a point of saying 'even the ones where I looked good,' which I loved."

After the writing exercise, all the participants completed a questionnaire, using a numbered scale to recall how much they felt out of control after the loss, as well as the extent to which they still grieved the person. Those who had described a personal ritual also reported feeling both more in control and less aggrieved after the writing exercise, indicating the power of merely reflecting on ritualistic behavior.

Inducing Grief For The Sake Of Science

To find out whether it was possible to assuage grief by performing seemingly meaningless rituals designed by someone else, Norton and Gino conducted a laboratory study in which they induced grief-inducing loss and assigned a ritual that they made up.

The experiment, however, did not involve inducing the loss of a loved one, Norton notes wryly. "As it turns out, we couldn't randomly assign people to break up with their significant other," he says. Rather, to create instant grief, the researchers held a series of sessions in which 9 to 15 college-aged participants learned that one of them, picked at random, would receive $200—a significant windfall for the average student. In each session, the winner took the money and left the room. And just like that, the rest of the participants were left with a sudden sense of loss.

Click to watch.

The researchers then split the newly disappointed participants into two groups: The "ritual" condition group performed a series of ritualistic tasks including drawing a picture about their current state of mind, sprinkling salt on the drawing, tearing up the drawing, and silently counting to 10. The "non-ritual" condition participants only drew a picture. After the experiment, the ritual group reported feeling more in control and less bummed out about the $200 than the non-ritual group.

Importantly, the researchers found that the rituals had a positive effect regardless of whether the participants held preconceived notions about ritualistic behavior. "That was a crucial question for us," Norton says. "We thought that people who habitually use rituals might get a benefit. But these results show that regardless of your belief, if we induce you to perform rituals, you feel better."

Rituals Enhance Consumption

Just as there are multitudes of grief rituals all over the world, so too are there innumerable rituals related to feasting, ranging from cultural (a Japanese tea ceremony) to personally quirky (eating all the green M&Ms first). "Given that there are so many rituals associated with food, we next explored whether rituals could even make food taste better," Norton says.

“With consumption, rituals seem to work because they increase your involvement in the experience.”

In a series of experiments conducted along with University of Minnesota marketing professor Kathleen D. Vohs and doctoral candidate Yajin Wang, Norton, and Gino found that rituals indeed have the power to make food seem tastier and more valuable. Their research findings are presented in the paper "Rituals Enhance Consumption," forthcoming in Psychological Science.

"We made the rituals deliberately silly," Norton says. "With rituals like wine-tasting and tasting menus, some of the enjoyment is about pageantry and great service. We wanted to strip those factors away and focus on the rituals themselves."

In one experiment, participants were asked to eat a chocolate bar. Half performed an assigned ritual, breaking and unwrapping the bar in a particular way before eating it. The other half just ate the bar unceremoniously. On average, those in the ritual group reported the candy more enjoyable and more flavorful than the non-ritual group.

A follow-up experiment showed that participants in the ritual experience actually thought the chocolate bar was worth more money than those in the nonritual group—thus showing the retail marketing potential for food-related rituals. The Hershey Company, for example, capitalized on the power of personal food rituals with its 1990s ad campaign for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups: "There's no wrong way to eat a Reese's." Nabisco has used similar tactics in advertising Oreo cookies.

Click to watch.

To see whether they could achieve the same effect with something less exciting but more nutritious than a chocolate bar, the researchers repeated the experiment with the least thrilling food they could imagine: carrots.

Sure enough, participants who performed a series of gestures before consuming the carrots reported more enjoyment than those who just ate them. (Norton notes that parents have been employing this technique for time immemorial—ritualistically pretending that a spoonful of pureed peas is, say, "a plane coming in for a landing" in order to make it more appealing to babies.)

Another experiment showed that observing a ritual is not nearly as powerful as performing a ritual. Participants who prepared a glass of powdered lemonade in a ritualistic manner (stir for 30 seconds, wait for 30 seconds, and so on) enjoyed consuming it much more than those who merely watched someone else prepare the lemonade.

"With grief, the ritual leads to a feeling of control," Norton says. "With consumption, rituals seem to work because they increase your involvement in the experience."

Employee Morale And Productivity

Later this year, the researchers plan to study how rituals affect productivity and morale among teams in the workplace—think trading high-fives at the beginning of a meeting. Norton believes that their grief findings may apply to corporate competition. "When teams lose a big sale, maybe a ritual will help them get over that loss," he says.

More broadly, they are sussing out the specific factors that classify a behavior as ritualistic rather than obsessive. "The line between rituals and other behaviors is very blurry," Norton says. "If you tear up a picture of your ex, that may be a helpful ritual. If you call your ex every day for a month and yell at him, you may need a different kind of help."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, None
    I have a simpler explanation. Human beings use rituals to guide them in times of emotional disturbance when they are trying to cope with an upset life. You just do what you have always done and hope that time will restore balance. It usually does.

    I remember well that when I arrived in USA in 1954 I was surprised at the extent to which the Civil War still divided people. When I learned about the loss and suffering involved I was less surprised.
    • Jemma Wilkinson
    • Senior manager, BIC
    This is why the Japanese and Chinese workers start the working morning with a group song or hymn to lift their morale and team spirit and aultimately. Pretty well known.
    • Ron Strieker
    • Managing Partner, CMI
    I fully appreciated and agree with the conclusions of the Norton and Gino studies having observed first hand many rituals around the world in such places as the outback of Australia and the hill tribes of Thailand not to mention the many rituals performed in organizations everyday to gain control and relieve the pain. I look forward to your organizational studies and thank you for focusing in this key area. I find it highly relevant for my executive coaching practice.


    Ron Strieker, Ph.D.
    • Marco Lalama
    • Independent Professional / Advertising, Self Employed
    I would say that the unconscious part of the mind operates with the symbolic. In that sense, rituals are the tools we need to "re-train" our unconscious. While we can train our rational mind with a well-argued statement, the deeper part of the self needs rituals to change its outlook on the reality of our circumstances.
    • M S S Krishnan
    • Major General, Retired,, Indian Army
    There is no doubt that rituals play a significant part in the lives of human beings.Rituals (not religious)have an electrifying effect on personnel of the armed forces in times of crises, in pre-battle and post-battle situations or even during peace time when there are inter-battalion sports tournaments. Each unit has its own set of rituals One thing is clear - rituals have a lot to say about Group Dynamics, whether in the armed forces or in any other organisation. It is heartening to see that the authors have chosen this subject for management research. contribute
    • Aim
    • Drilling Engineer, N/A
    What is the difference between religion and rituals? = What is the point of this study? Is it not the same as saying prehistoric man learned about fire as a modern man is learning about praying/submission?

    Moreover, it is essential to conduct longer term effects of rituals on productivity/efficiency. I would love to hear how that story portrays a human's common sense. For instance: tearing up pictures? what are you a child? Besides, do you not keep the pics in an i-pad or something? Well go break it and see where the self imposed rituals lead you next time.
    • Maribel Rodriguez Zapatero
    • Professor, University of Cordoba (Spain)
    Fantastic and clear article. I am considering to conduct a study in the family firm field about rituals enhancing its longevity.
    • Natrajh Ramakrishna
    • COuntry head, Audit, KPMG India
    We regularly employ "rituals" that we have made as part of "Culture": 1. Informal early morning meetings over coffee to discuss exciting market opportunities, values and ethics, supporting people... 2. End of day informal chats 'reflecting' on the morning rituals 3. De-personalizing failures through "Learning Sessions" that deal with both success and failures 4. Celebrating outstanding group efforts 5. Not being judgmental, yet objective and candid in any discussion 6. Inviting spouses/companions for informal "get-togethers"
    • Ranga
    • Consultant, RR Consultants
    In India we are highly ritualistic even in the business. Like for ex: when a new center is opened, a "puja" or a ceremony is performed prior to the occupation of the first seat, or in case of a new plant being constructed, a ground breaking ceremony is conducted. I have known family groups (even a billion USD revenue companies), doing some special occasion puja in case of a downward cycle or a new product launches etc.

    Annually in all the manufacturing plants they do dedicate a day as Factory Puja day where in all the machines are cleansed etc.

    These are especially true in southern India.

    These rituals I guess bring a sense of optimism and help in reinvigorate the teams / organization or the local units.
    • Vish Trivedi
    • Chairman, Inland Waterways Authority of India
    Very nice article. The article makes me say "I always thought so". In India, a society which lives on rituals from the first breath in the morning to the closing yawn, this has been overdone.
    • Mary Tehan
    • SBO, Ultimacy
    Indigenous populations, religious/spiritual entities, and grief, loss and bereavement/spiritual care counsellors have been facilitating rituals for centuries ... the dearth of understanding the place of ritual in peoples' lives in Western societies is mammoth ... this article starkly highlights it! A good ritual would help a person/community transition through a life and death trajectory at significant moments in their lives. A ritual with integrity would understand the central importance of relationship of self to 'other/s' and vice versa in any ritual. It is Not transactional or commercial ... it is mutually respectful in nature and approach. I'd like to suggest that this article and video are playing around with "habits" rather than rituals ... AND they are a great way to open up conversations about life and death and how to muddle through in a healthy way.
    • p venkateshwar
    • dean pr and private program, merc insitute of managenment pune
    guess this could also be the reason why regularly meditating souls feel more peaceful happier blissful as meditation for them then becomes enjoyable as much as its ritualistic... like one of my gurus used to say fondly that "regularity is more important than quality and quantity" regular practice automatically brings in the consistency in quality and optimality in quantity especially considering the fact that our brain likes repetition..

    • Avi
    • Shankar, University of Bath
    Ritual has been extensively studied for well over 100 years and there's an extensive body of knowledge in anthropology, sociology and consumer culture theory. I see no point in conducting a few experiments to tell us what we already know. This is what one of my colleagues called the legitimization of knowledge through pseudo-science.
    • Pam Davies
    • Independent Counselor, Self-employed
    Another way to think about rituals is that it enables us to give attention in a very focused way on the present, and in the case of rituals for grief, they give us permission to really pay attention to what we are experiencing at that moment and have that acknowledged by others. How often in our busy lives do we give ourselves time to do that, or do we do that for others - we usually fly on automatic pilot from one thing to the next. Understanding and accepting our emotions without anxiety and being able to do this for others can be positively healing and is after all, part of being human. These ideas are from mindfulness and meditation.
    • Destination Infinity
    • Administrator,
    Rituals make people respect something, more than what they would if they were allowed to take it freely. Rituals make the item look more valuable to people, like how branding is used to increase the value of luxury goods. There is a better idea to make something more valuable - Deny or restrict something, before eventually giving it.
    • Amitava
    • Manager, hp
    Realization comes thru' meditation; meditation comes thru' concentration and rituals help improving concentration. Ritual is the manifestation of individual's belief performed in a focus mind.
    • Roy Tomo-Spiff
    • University of Phoenix
    All cultures use rituals of one form or the other for different reasons and causes. In some primal cultures, like mine in the Niger delta, sharing of pieces of kola nuts, libation, and sharing drinks from a single cup are very common at weddings, celebration of success, and funeral ceremonies are common rituals. The reason for such rituals is to foster and energize the communal spirit.
    • Nina Nixon
    • Freelance Writer and Business Consultant, Freelance Writer & Business Consultant
    Nice article, Carmen. As far as the learning more about the effects of rituals in the workplace, Norton should study customer service reps and sales reps. They deal with losses on a daily basis. After a loss of a sale, they pick themselves up and read the scripts and continue on looking for the next sale. The best rituals are "actions" that we take part in to help us cope. It seems to me that doing nothing is the opposite of a ritual. Therefore, if you implement rituals in the workplace, it should help workers cope better with losses and encourage them to move forward in reaching their goals. Nina at
    • Rita
    • sales manager
    Rituals can bring closure. A definite line in the sand can be drawn with rituals to move forward, leaving the past behind.
    A moment of thanks or prayer before meal time is meaningful to me. It`s the respect that one gives to a ritual that makes it meaningful. If it`s just motions without the knowing why it looses it`s value.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) private Limited
    A ritual is a ceremonial act - a religious or solemn ceremony- consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. Every religion has its own rituals and the performer is made to believe that anticipated results will be got if the ritual is performed correctly(as laid down) and with regularity. It is true that one's solid belief in anything works but I feel that one needs to rise above and not be engulfed more so by bizarre rituals such as those performed by Tantriks in India.
    People who perform rituals get a psychological relief by making the mind feel that improvements are coming. If something good has once happened by operating in a certain way, it is felt that the same be repeated. And, if it happens again and again it also becomes a ritual. However, true spirituality is beyond rituals.
    Man is weak and fear is inbuilt. Due to this rituals survive. If one could shun fear, rituals would vanish.
    The thought of applying rituals to management of organisations is far-fetched.
    • Niharika Singh
    • Assistant Professor, SBIIMS, Pune
    Rituals during life do give an internal strength to face the difficult situations, introspection as well many a times come out with solutions to our problems, but the rituals for death dont give the same feeling, infact in my opinion, the rituals performed during death are the deadliest one to tolerate and they give more pain than relief.... Some rituals performed are at the burst of cruelity... that can bring anyone to tears...