The Psychological World of Rituals

Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet

It is easy to think that rituals are merely illogical, stripped of all practical utility. Even cruel, as when the Aztecs sacrificed humans to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli. But rituals are something that humans naturally create and that give us a feeling of order and tranquility. Of belongingness in the world. Or in some cases, euphoria and revolutionary glow. It can be something as mundane as shaking hands with strangers when we greet them, to the Christmas celebrations where the whole family gathers. It is therefore difficult to know exactly what rituals are, but Nicholas Hobson, a psychologist and researcher from the University of Toronto, and his colleagues define rituals as having three characteristics:

1) They must be actions that are predetermined and have a more or less rigid structure.

2) Someone participating in/directing the ritual thinks that the actions have a larger meaning or symbolism.

3) The ritual contains elements that lack direct instrumental value.

Thus, rituals do not directly affect reality. But they must still have a value, otherwise they would not be such a prominent aspect of human societies. In the past, we have tried to understand rituals by looking only at what happens in the group participating in the ritual and how they affect society. But to really understand rituals, we also need to look at how they affect the individuals who participate. In other words, the psychological function of rituals.

Rituals work through both what psychologists call top-down and bottom-up processes. A non-religious ritual that can illustrate both these processes is sending up fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Top-down processes describe that we start with a conscious idea that shapes what we do and how it is experienced. Shooting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve becomes meaningful because we think it marks the end of the old year. Bottom-up processes are the opposite. They start with sensory impressions, which then shape how we perceive or what we think about what we experience. Fireworks make loud noises that catch our attention, create bright colours in the sky that light up the night, and are something we watch together. To explain why we actually set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve, which logically may seem meaningless, we need to consider both the meaning we attach to the launch (top-down) and how it affects us through sensory impressions (bottom-up). 

According to Hobson and colleagues, there are three main areas through which rituals affect us. They regulate emotions, performance towards goals, and social connections. That rituals regulate emotions can be clearly seen in the fact that people who experience a lot of stress or loss of control, especially after traumatic events, more often create rituals. Rituals directly help to cope with sadness, stress and fear. In the 2006 Lebanon war, Israeli women who recited hymns were found to have less anxiety than those who did not, and it has also been shown that performing rituals in times of grief makes people feel less sad and more in control. A bottom-up explanation for this could be that repeating the same actions or words, such as the hymns of the Israeli women during the Lebanon war, allows people to focus entirely on the ritual and take a break from all the fear, stress, and uncertainty of war. This pause is also meaningful and can put the negative feelings in a larger context. This is the top-down explanation, which is also supported by the fact that doing the exact same actions only regulates emotions if you believe that it is a ritual. Seeing the ritual as meaningful is thus an essential part of its ability to regulate emotions.

The second psychological area in which rituals work is in regulating performance towards goals. This overlaps a lot with emotion regulation, but the main idea is that people are better able to regulate themselves so that they can achieve their goals. This can be seen by the fact that in one experiment on people who wanted to reduce their calorie intake, researchers asked half of the participants to perform a ritual before eating. They were told to divide the food into pieces, arrange the pieces so that the left and right sides of the plate were perfectly symmetrical, and then press a kitchen utensil three times against the top of the food. They were also told that the ritual would enable them to reduce their calorie intake by 10%, which is the top-down process that makes the ritual meaningful. Those who did the ritual ate significantly fewer calories than those who didn’t do the ritual. So the ritual can increase focus on the goal by reminding you of the goal, and self-efficacy by the completion of the ritual itself.  

Finally, rituals are also invaluable in how they connect us to other people. Of course, the social focus of rituals can also be exclusionary, such as banishment or public punishment. But even then, they often have the purpose and effect of binding the group together and clarifying the values of the group. Rituals themselves can even make you feel more connected to others who participated in the ritual. Just think of football supporters singing the team song in the stands.

From bottom-up processing, this can be explained by shared attention, that everyone participating in the ritual has their focus in the same direction, and emotional synchronicity, that one feels as a unit and at one with the others in the ritual. This is particularly supported by the physical nature of social rituals, and it has been shown that the more synchronous the physical movements, the greater the trust and sense of community created by the ritual. On a more conscious top-down level, it is rather that people signal to their group that they are part of them and are willing to make sacrifices to participate in the community. Religious groups that have rituals that require more of you as an individual have been shown to create more belonging, loyalty and longevity. Perhaps most interestingly, social rituals are often associated with losing oneself in something larger, feeling that one is part of a larger entity, and thus experiencing a sense of self-transcendence.

More generally, it can be said that rituals satisfy a fundamental human need for order. To make the chaos of the world more tangible. They connect us to each other and enable us to cope with difficult situations and achieve our goals. Since rituals are made up of repetition, meaning, and a lack of clear instrumental function, they can often become destructive if one of these factors is allowed to dominate, as in people with OCD. Nevertheless, rituals are a way to bring order to our own emotions, thoughts, and social world, and a gateway to becoming something more than a lonely self.


Hobson, N.M., Schroeder, H., Risen, J.L., Xygalatas, D., & Inzlicht, M. (2018). The Psychology of Rituals: An Integrative Review and Process-Based Framework. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22(3), pp. 260-284.

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