Enacting rituals to improve self-control

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2018 Jun;114(6):851-876. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000113.


Rituals are predefined sequences of actions characterized by rigidity and repetition. We propose that enacting ritualized actions can enhance subjective feelings of self-discipline, such that rituals can be harnessed to improve behavioral self-control. We test this hypothesis in 6 experiments. A field experiment showed that engaging in a pre-eating ritual over a 5-day period helped participants reduce calorie intake (Experiment 1). Pairing a ritual with healthy eating behavior increased the likelihood of choosing healthy food in a subsequent decision (Experiment 2), and enacting a ritual before a food choice (i.e., without being integrated into the consumption process) promoted the choice of healthy food over unhealthy food (Experiments 3a and 3b). The positive effect of rituals on self-control held even when a set of ritualized gestures were not explicitly labeled as a ritual, and in other domains of behavioral self-control (i.e., prosocial decision-making; Experiments 4 and 5). Furthermore, Experiments 3a, 3b, 4, and 5 provided evidence for the psychological process underlying the effectiveness of rituals: heightened feelings of self-discipline. Finally, Experiment 5 showed that the absence of a self-control conflict eliminated the effect of rituals on behavior, demonstrating that rituals affect behavioral self-control specifically because they alter responses to self-control conflicts. We conclude by briefly describing the results of a number of additional experiments examining rituals in other self-control domains. Our body of evidence suggests that rituals can have beneficial consequences for self-control. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Webcast

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Delay Discounting
  • Energy Intake
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Intention
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mindfulness
  • Self-Control*
  • Weight Loss
  • Young Adult