Column: On Rituals and the Other Side of the Magic

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Baseball third baseman and hall-of-famer Wade Boggs, who played for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays was well-known for his rituals. Though not Jewish, he always drew the Hebrew symbol Chai, meaning “living,” in the dirt of the batter’s box before he went to bat. Wade also ate chicken before every game, took batting practice at 5:17 a.m. and ran sprints at exactly 7:17 a.m. I have no idea what Mr. Boggs’ faith is, but his use of ritual was widely publicized.

Boggs was not the only famous example of ritual behavior in sports. Tennis Champion Serena Williams will only wear a single pair of socks during any given tournament; successful NCAA Men’s Basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian would chew towels during games; Basketball player Mike Bibby uses nail clippers during timeouts and Wayne Gretzky used baby powder on his hockey stick famously remarked “I think it’s essentially a matter of taking care of what takes care of you.” And finally, baseball outfielder Moises Alou pees on his hands to toughen then up.

Fan dons a Ritual Rally Cap [Photo Credit: Kevin Harber / Flickr]

Fan dons a ritual rally cap to help team win [Photo Credit: Kevin Harber / Flickr]

Yes, you read that right. And while there is no evidence that urine will make your hands tougher, science does speak to how ritual behavior can help us in our tasks. On a cultural level, rituals serve to promote structure. They serve as a means to communicate across individuals and generations while routinizing social behavior to mark transitions, time or power as well as belongingness, remembrances and traditions. In this sense, ritual behavior is actually fairly common regardless of faith.

But rituals do not work within faith traditions alone. My husband just became a citizen last month. As I watched him taking his Oath of Allegiance, it was clear that this was part of “United-Statesian” ritualized behavior that “transforms” a person into an “American.” There were also elements of the citizenship ceremony to underscore both the significance of the event as well as highlight the new affiliation and the powers it confers. There is imagery throughout the ceremony reminding the new citizens of American values. Other imagery shows the struggles of past immigrants: an echo of ancestors. You stand, you sit, you perform and you recite. And finally, there is imagery of place reminding the citizens of the land itself.

Pagan and Heathen rituals are equally complex though often with a markedly different purpose than nationalism. They can vary in motive and goals. They can be part of a larger ceremony. They celebrate time and rhythms or invoke personal even divine power to transform ourselves, our consciousness, and our world or shape will and reality within them. They can be private or public; spontaneous to ceremonial. But their purpose is always to intensify our relationship with the sacred.

As Rev. Selena Fox wrote, “Through rituals, Pagans deepen their relationship with the Divine in one or more sacred forms. Through rituals, Pagan culture flourishes and evolves.”  Like prayer, rituals serve as a source of reflection. They help us better understand the present moment and our place in the web of relationships around us. They also help us understand the actions we must take to develop ourselves personally and spiritually.

It turns out that there is some interesting science about how rituals serve as a basis for improving and empowering individuals. To explore this, let’s take out the spiritual side of ritual for a moment and focus only its psychological and behavioral effects. Magical ritual has been most typically viewed as an error in cognition – a misinterpreted framing of actual events. In the case of Wade Boggs, for example, the cognitive error emerges when he attempted a ritual and succeeded with his performance thereby increasing the likelihood he would attempt that ritual again.

In psychology, this is the stimulus-response-reward cycle that leads to the building of our behavioral repertoire. Psychology sees our behaviors as the result of collective rewards. In other words, we do what we do because we are rewarded for doing it, and because we are rewarded for doing it, we continue to do what we do.

And then there are other effects like the Galatea and Pygmalion effects that come into play in our ritual behavior as well. The Galatea effect refers to the phenomenon where an individual’s own opinion about their ability and self-worth influence the performance tasks. For example, if an employee thinks that she will perform well, then she improves her own chances of succeeding at the task. The Pygmalion effect is similar. In this effect, the employee improves his performance because his supervisor communicates her belief that he will succeed. The employee then tries harder to perform at the supervisor’s expectations.

Both of these are part of the self-fulfilling prophecy, a term that fails to convey the real substance of these effects. Neither of these produces a causal effect, as it were. Rather they create beliefs that then create motivational states and ultimately produce performance effects.

Thai Pagan Pride Altar [Courtesy Photo]

Altar used in Pagan Seasonal Ritual [Courtesy Photo: Thai Pagan Pride]

Legare & Souza (2012) wanted to explore the effectiveness of ritual action when there is no available causal information; that is the lack of evidence of causal effect. To do this they brought together the understanding from both cultural and psychological science by looking at simpatias in Brazil.

In Latin America, simpatias (the Brazillian term) are charms, a sort of common magic or simple spell that are embedded and ubiquitous in the culture. We don’t look for cause and effects because they are representative in how we perform our culture. For example, my grandmother taught me to place (and change weekly) a clear glass of water in the room where you sleep to silence spirits that insist on speaking without your permission. The simpatias address all sorts of issues from love to ailments.

What the researchers did is “invent” simpatias that contained elements that made sense to the Brazilian culture; for example using religious iconography, specific steps and order, and the number and types of items used. They presented the “invented” simpatias to a Brazilian sample then conducted the same study with a U.S. samples. The researchers then asked each group to rate the effectiveness of the simpatias.

Now here’s the interesting part, the Brazilian group, who already believed in the effectiveness of simpatias, identified the number of steps in the charm, the repeated procedures of the charm, and the specified time in the charm as important elements that lead to the charm working. The U.S. group, who did not believe in the effectiveness of simpatias, identified the exact same elements to creating an effective charm. What the findings suggest, is that the logic of a ritual is important in its effectiveness.

Now let’s take that into context with this: Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler (2010) reported a set of intriguing experiments where participants attempted 10 golf putts from a distance of about 1 yard. Some participants, a primed group, were told ‘‘Here is the ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball.’’  A control group was told ‘‘This is the ball everyone has used so far.’’

Obviously participants were blind to the differences between the two groups and were not told the objective of the experiment. Surprisingly, participants in the control group made 48% of putts while participants in the primed group made 65% of putts, a statistically significant difference accounted for only by the priming statement. While there have been challenges in replicating the findings and much more work needs to be done, the initial data suggest that belief matters a great deal toward creating performance or meeting performance standards.

Finally, Norton & Gino (2013) conducted a series of experiments to examine how rituals can help regain feelings of control during periods of loss. They conducted a series of lab experiments to examine loss. One experiment involved individuals receiving $15 for participating in an experiment that involved the possible winning of an additional $200. Participants thought that the experiment was about the lottery but it was actually about how rituals help mitigate feelings of defeat and grief. Before participating, participants were asked about their belief in rituals and then asked to participate in one involving using some words, salt and paper to limit feelings of loss. As expected, the participants who partook in rituals, reported feeling less grief regardless of whether they believed in the ritual. The research points to the acts of (a) referring to a set of actions as ritual and (b) that executing them as such are critical elements to produce the beneficial psychological effects.

Taken together, the findings of all three investigations are provocative. While the studies are not looking at Pagan ritual per se, the parallels are important. They underscore the fundamental benefits of Pagan ritual practice independent of spiritual underpinnings. The science hints to the powerful combination of psychology and culture that creates a transformative experience leading to better performance, whether in life or in work or in golf.

But there are other positive outcomes here that we can potentially leverage. Science is the religion of the secular and everyone has some exposure to it. While science cannot validate who we are and why we do things, it can helps us communicate our actions to those unfamiliar with our rituals. Science can serve as a more accessible bridge with those individuals who are unable to see the elegance of Pagan practice because their biases forbid them clarity.

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Michela Horvath]

Handfasting Ritual [Photo Credit: Michela Horvath]

The science here can also help us support those who are new to Paganism as they develop their own spiritual awareness in their traditions. I’m reminded of the old artistic adage “Trust the process.” It is about not worrying how a work (or a ritual) unfolds, but rather to be present in the experience. It is a challenge of patience not a test of faith. The research above underscores the transformative potential of ritual that can help new Pagans approach personal work without having to believe in anything except the process. While that may sound atheistic to some, which may be fine in and of itself, developing faith is a much longer road with its own challenges. In the meantime, spiritual and personal growth can happen. Rituals can help open both doors.

Our rituals are also a form of transgression. They do not seek to limit or humble or drain; though their power they may show our weaknesses, reminds us of humility, or leave us exhausted. Our rituals do not seek to make us, less. Our rituals are empowering. Our rituals are about building the person and the community, while marking the sacred. They allow every practitioner to serve as both transformer and transformed. They build and create relationships without intercessors. And, most, seriously we can see them as mechanisms for influencing the natural world as well as the lives and minds of others. They are a sobering display of Pagan strength.


Damisch, L., Stoberock, B. & Mussweiler, T. (2010)  “Keep our fingers crossed!  How superstition improves performance.” Psychological Science, 21, 1014-1020. doi: 10.1177/0956797610372631

Legare, C.H. & Souza, A. L. (2012).  “Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural.” Cognition, 124 (1), 1-16.

Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2013, February 11). “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031772