Rites of Passage

The act of performing rituals may ease the pain of loss, new research shows

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Some mourners recite daily prayers. Others may listen to their loved one’s favorite song on the way to work or grow a beard or dine every Sunday at the deceased’s favorite restaurant. Turns out, it’s with good reason. According to new research out of Harvard Business School, the act of performing rituals of all kinds can help mitigate grief. Michael Norton and Francesca Gino, both associate professors of business administration at Harvard, conducted the study — and Gino spoke recently with Modern Loss’ Gabrielle Birkner about their findings.


The study’s authors, Michael Norton and Francesca Gino

What was the genesis of this study — and why would a business school be interested in exploring the relationship between grief and rituals?

My colleague Mike 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. During one of our meetings, Mike and I discussed the topic. We see in every culture — and throughout history — that people who perform rituals report feeling better. But we didn’t know if the ritual caused the healing. … Mike and I got interested in rituals more generally. For instance, in another project we show that rituals affect consumption, something that is quite relevant for business, and in another we find that [both individual and team] rituals affect performance.

How do you define a ritual?

We define a ritual as a symbolic activity, performed either before or after a meaningful event, which is intended to achieve some desired outcome — from alleviating grief to winning a competition to making it rain.

Tell us about you gauged the impact of ritual on a grieving person.

In one experiment, we asked participants to recall and write about the death of a loved one or the end of a close relationship. Some participants also wrote about a ritual they performed after experiencing the loss. For instance, one participant [wrote], “I used to play the song by Natalie Cole ‘Miss You Like Crazy’ and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom.” Another reported, “I washed his car every week as he used to do.” After this writing task, all participants were asked to indicate their level of grief. We found that participants who wrote about engaging in a ritual … reported feeling lower grief than did those who only wrote about the loss.

In what ways were the rituals helpful?

As human beings, we may feel out of control when losing a loved one, when an important relationships ends, or when experiencing other types of losses. Mourning rituals, in particular, are ubiquitous across time and cultures. As we find in our research, they give us back a sense of control. And feeling in control is one of humans’ basic desires and needs.

Were some kinds of rituals more effective than others — religious vs. secular, say, or public vs. private?

In our studies, we find that all sorts of rituals are effective. However, in a recent study conducted in Brazil, researchers studied people who perform simpatias, [which are] formulaic rituals that are used for solving problems such as quitting smoking, curing asthma, and warding off bad luck. People perceive simpatias to be more effective depending on the number of steps involved, the repetition …  and whether the steps are performed at a specified time. While more research is needed, these intriguing results suggest that the specific nature of rituals may be crucial in understanding when they work — and when they do not.

Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true. While some rituals are unlikely to be effective — knocking on wood will not bring rain — many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.

On the flip side, are there ways that a ritual can actually be a bad thing for those mourning a loved one  — perhaps giving them a false sense of control, or leading to compulsive behaviors?

We do not think so. In fact, in our research we found that rituals had a positive effect regardless of whether the participants held preconceived notions about ritualistic behavior. We thought that people who habitually use rituals might get a benefit. But our results show that regardless of your belief, if we induce you to perform rituals, you feel better.

In your research, did you discover any grief rituals across cultures that were particularly interesting or surprising?

Rituals in the face of losses such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship — or loss of limb from shark bite — are ubiquitous. There is such a wide variety of known mourning rituals that they can even be contradictory: crying near the dying is viewed as disruptive by Tibetan Buddhists, but as a sign of respect by Catholic Latinos; Hindu rituals encourage the removal of hair during mourning, while growing hair, in the form of a beard, is the preferred ritual for Jewish males.

Interview condensed for length and clarity. 

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