Mar 31, 2014

Mourning in private, with rituals but not belief

Rituals have powerful effect on humans. But, according to a new study on the effects of rituals on people in mourning, it doesn't matter what you believe about those rituals. Nor does it matter what specific rituals you do.

Any ritual will work.

Yet, it's curious. While believing that a ritual is powerful is not important, according to this study, believing that the ritual is a ritual, and directing it at the feelings of loss, in a sense, seems to matter.

In the Journal of Experimental Psychology paper, "Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries," Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino report:
First, our pilot study demonstrates that people use a wide variety of rituals, indicating that the particular actions people perform when carrying out rituals are not the primary driver of reduced grief. Second, believing in the effectiveness of rituals did not moderate the relationship between performing rituals and reduced grief, suggesting that people do not need to explicitly endorse the efficacy of rituals in order for rituals to increase perceived control and lower grief after a loss. Finally . . .  referring to a set of actions as a ritual and performing such actions are both critical ingredients for rituals to be effective.
It's not clear why it should be the case that thinking of a ritual as a ritual would be more efficacious. What counts as a ritual, of course, is open to individual interpretations. When asked about rituals they had used to cope with the death of a loved one, test subjects described a range of practices. One person described the Jewish practice of sitting shiva and a praying particular prayers over the next year. Another described playing a late mother's favorite song, Natalie Cole's "I miss you like crazy," and crying. A third described washing the deceased's car in the way he did.

The sampling of rituals wasn't representative enough to say anything definitive about varieties of ritual practice in America today, but it is interesting to note that, among those participating in the test, mourning was not generally a religious act. It was not communal either.

There were nearly 250 test subjects, who all volunteered at a Ivy League school. Fewer than 20 percent of them were students, about half male, half female, with a median age of about 36. Among these, only about 5 percent described mourning rituals that were "specifically religious in nature."

Only about 5 percent said they'd mourned a loss, a death or an ended relationship, with rituals performed communally.

About 10 percent said that, with or without community participation, their rituals were in some sense public.

"Most of the rituals recalled," write Norton and Gino, "were private, everyday rituals that were unique to the individual rather than performed publicly."