Chalk clap

Are Rituals Performance Enhancing Drugs?

Editor's Note: I always do the same silly things before going on stage. I have a different, but equally silly routine before boarding a plane. My pre-game-of-pool-in-the-back-of-a-bar ritual is completely absurd, too. But you know what? I’ve never lost a game that matters. Okay, I’ve never actually played a game that matters, but I like performing these rituals and I like to think they impact my results. Do they? Why would they? Can we apply them to more professional settings (at least until I turn pro for billiards and flying coach)?

Good questions, Jeff. Elaine?


Alex Ovechkin, the rowdy Russian hockey star, led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup in June. It was a thrill for the beleaguered Capitals, but also one for Washington, D.C., whose four professional sports teams hadn’t won a championship of any kind since 1992. How did Ovechkin, whose larger-than-life personality is beloved by hockey fans, perform so well? Science says there might be something in ... chicken parmigiana.

That’s right. Chicken parm. Even before Ovechkin joined the team in 2005, the Capitals players had eaten chicken parmigiana from Mamma Lucia’s, a local restaurant, on every game day. Ovechkin quickly adopted the tradition. Over time, his teammates gave up the calorie-laden dish for lighter fare. But not Ovechkin. And despite his advanced athletic age (32!), that heavy meal apparently hasn’t hurt his performance. And because it’s a ritual, it’s quite possible that it has helped.

Ovechkin’s may be the only chicken parmigiana ritual for an athlete anywhere – or maybe for any performer anywhere. But he’s hardly the only human to do the same thing, over and over again, exactly the same way, before a high-stakes performance.

We all face high-stakes performances in our professional lives – as entrepreneurs, employees, job-seekers, designers and more – so we can all learn from the behavioral science of rituals.

Could rituals improve executive function skills, like our ability to plan ahead, set and work toward goals, and organize ourselves?

In sports, rituals are everywhere. Before each game, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors runs through the tunnel with his shoes untied and flashes a tattoo to his wife, who has a matching one. During free throws, he chews on his mouthguard, a ritual to which a statistics-loving fan attributes an average of two extra points per game. LeBron James performs such a long and complex set of ritual activities (think: chalk toss) that we can’t sum it up here. Suffice it to say we have such an intuitive belief, or maybe hope, that rituals will help us perform better that we eat up stories about others’ lucky objects, ritual tasks and favorite pre-game meals. We might think, “If a Silicon Valley billionaire starts his day with 100 sit-ups and bone broth, maybe the wealth will rub off if I do, too?”

But is our belief that chalk tossing somehow leads to wins just superstition? If Ovechkin had traded in his parmigiana for, say, a papaya smoothie – would he have scored just as many goals? Or is there true causation between rituals and improved performance?

Go ahead and rub your lucky rabbit’s foot

According to an article by Harvard researchers Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton in Scientific American, “... even simple rituals can be extremely effective.” Experiments show that rituals help us alleviate grief, for instance. More relevant to performance, when conducted before high-pressure tasks, they “reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”

Why? What’s the actual connection between rituals and success?

There’s a fine line between a) so called “pre-performance routines,” b) rituals, and c) superstition, says Dan McGinn, author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.”

Pre-performance routines are those activities that are task-related – stretching before a 10K run, for instance. A preponderance of research in sports psychology shows that these contextual practices improve performance — perhaps not too surprising.

Rituals, on the other hand, are symbolic, routinized activities, performed in sequence, and repeated often. Unlike pre-performance routines, rituals appear to have nothing to do with the task at hand.

Superstition occurs when we imbue objects or actions with magical powers. (Clearly, ritual and superstition can get pretty mixed up in the real, non-academic world.)

One thing that both pre-performance routines and rituals do for us is to focus the mind in the brief period immediately before performance – McGinn calls this the crucial ten minutes. Thus we banish anxiety (Will I be able to finish the 10K? Will I beat my personal record?) because rather than feeling our sweaty palms, we’re distracted by rubbing the lucky rock in our pocket or clicking our heels three times while whispering, “There’s no place like home,” or tossing chalk into the Cleveland, nee, Los Angeles air.

The other thing both routines and certain rituals can do is to boost confidence, in part because, well, we believe they do. "You get into a virtuous circle... If you believe a ritual works and you perform it, it makes you more confident," Says McGinn. "It's pretty much a given in sports psychology that people who perform in a confident mindset will perform better."  

Remember that we sometimes blur the lines between ritual and superstition, we believe parts of those rituals are magic? Some research shows that when a ritual includes superstition, it “helps us feel like luck is on our side.” Many non-magical rituals can boost confidence as well, and for what appear to be more obvious reasons. For instance, listening to certain music before a competition can pump us up, which explains the ubiquity of Queen’s, “We are the Champions.” 

While reduced anxiety and increased confidence hardly guarantee a win or an A on a test, they increase the likelihood of success, depending on when those effects happen. As McGinn says, “Anxiety two or three weeks out can be helpful, because it scares you into more preparation. But right before performance, anxiety hurts, we know.”

Oh, the logic

OK, so now we know that researchers have proven that pre-performance routines (remember, they’re task-related) improve performance. But that lucky rabbit’s foot? McGinn says the link between rituals and performance improvement is still only speculation.

This lack of scientific evidence apparently bugged researchers Nicholas M. Hobson, Devin Bonk and Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto enough for them to take action. After all, humans have been performing rituals since ancient times, they complain: “Despite the ubiquity of performance rituals, very little is actually known about how these behaviors influence goal-directed performance, if at all.”

So, they set out to discover some knowledge: They speculated, based on prior research, that rituals both increase motivation and decrease performance-related anxiety. Could rituals improve executive function skills, like our ability to plan ahead, set and work toward goals, and organize ourselves)? What happens to our brains on ritual, they wanted to know?

The trio recruited two groups of participants. The “ritual” group performed a series of arbitrary tasks, mostly combining hand movements with deep breathing, in strict order every day for a week. (FWIW, they refrained from calling this a ritual, although it was, to avoid triggering behaviors based on participants’ existing beliefs about rituals.) The control group performed a different series of similar random activities, but not in any particular order. Each group took tests of executive function skills at home daily and, after a week of performing their hand waving and deep breathing tasks, in the lab. During the lab-based tests, researchers used electroencephalographic recording (EEG) to measure participants’ brainwaves.

What the scientists found was fascinating. Our brains produce an electrical signal when we make mistakes. (Interestingly, the same thing happens in non-human primates.) That signal, called error-related negativity or ERN, is higher in people with anxiety. The Toronto scientists learned that the participants who performed a ritual-like routine (even without knowing it was a ritual) generally experienced a reduced ERN when making errors — in other words, being wrong became less of a big deal, physiologically. The folks performing “random activities” experienced no such change. The researchers concluded that “ritual guides goal-directed performance by regulating the brain’s response to personal failure.” (This, of course, leads us to wonder about the effect of self-criticism on performance, but that’s another article.)

While reducing that error-induced signal might sound like an unmitigated win for performance improvement, it’s not: Previous research has shown that a certain amount of anxiety actually improves performance. In this new experiment, the researchers showed that ritual decreased anxiety without hurting performance. Their conclusion: “… a ritual could help a person during performance find the anxiety sweet spot that appears ideal for generating effective control.” So rituals can help you feel nervous – but not too nervous.

A ritual could help a person during performance find the anxiety sweet spot that appears ideal for generating effective control

Can we “borrow” success?

But rituals’ effect on anxiety hardly explains everything there is to know about the connection between chicken parmigiana and the Stanley Cup – or between wishing an actor to “break a leg” and that star receiving a standing ovation.

Also at play are the magical powers we accord to lucky objects. Experiments show that lucky objects are, well, really lucky. Dan McGinn cites a fascinating study in which researchers divided golfers into two groups and gave them a putting challenge. They presented a golf club to the experimental group and told the golfers that the club had previously belong to PGA player Ben Curtis. (It was a lie.) They gave a “regular” club to the control group. Not only did the golfers using the “famous” club perform about a third better than the control group, but they also estimated the size of the hole as 9% bigger – and therefore easier – than the control group did. The effect is called “positive contagion,” which means that “when someone touches an object, they leave behind the essence of themselves on it,” says Sally Linkenauger, who led the experiment. So the next time you take an exam, use a pen owned by someone who aced that same test before. Editor’s note: Buy my gently used red pens now on Etsy!

When rituals can hurt

What if Mamma Lucia’s had run out of Ovechkin’s chicken parmigiana before a big game? Dan McGinn worries that we can become too dependent upon our rituals. Clearly, he’s not the only one who’s figured out this vulnerability. Red Sox baseball player Wade Boggs was known for running sprints in the outfield exactly 17 minutes before every game. According to McGinn, opposing teams would sometimes manipulate the game clock so that it would flip directly from 19 minutes to 15 minutes before — something like the way high-rise buildings often “skip” their 13th floors. “Whether it had an effect or not, I don’t know,” McGinn says.

Rituals in real life

Most of us aren’t professional athletes, but we all face high-stakes performances these days where the impact of rituals may help. These might include frequent job interviews or performance reviews, sales meetings, speaking engagements, investor pitches and presentations to the boss.

McGinn argues that we are now more frequently assessed on these “thin slices of time,” rather than on the sum of 40 hours of work each week or 50 weeks of work per year. So how do you knock it out of the park, as it were? He says: Use some kind of pre-performance ritual. Whatever you choose, it’s likely to help reduce anxiety, and it can boost energy and confidence. “You’ve put all of these years of training into this,” he says. “Don’t neglect to have a plan for the last ten minutes.”


Get the latest behavioral
science insights.