Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched

Conceived in literature, tested in psychology

Can what you do *before* you write improve your actual writing?


Mark Twain was a big believer in ritual.

Thomas Wolfe liked to masturbate before each of his writing sessions: the activity, he said, helped inspire his imagination and put him in the proper mindset for writing (a “good male feeling,” he called it). John Cheever seemingly agreed—except in his case, the activity was actual sex. “Two or three orgasms a week,” he said, should do the trick. For writers like Mark Twain, time of day was of the utmost importance: between breakfast and five in the evening, no one was allowed to disturb him. In case of emergency, they could blow a horn to get his attention. Vladimir Nabokov, on the other hand, cared less about time and more about method. “My schedule is flexible,” he told the Paris Review, “but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.” Patricia Highsmith swore by a pre-writing-drink—to reduce her energy, according to her biographer, Andrew Wilson—while Woody Allen prefers a different liquid refreshment: showers as long as 45 minutes each, perfect for “just thinking out ideas and working on plot.”

The quirky artist—an image so old it has become a stereotype. New research, however, is suggesting that there may be more to these ritualistic tendencies than mere quirk: engaging in pre-writing ritual could actually affect the quality of the creative experience.

Traditionally, ritual has remained the domain of anthropologists, historians, biographers, and, often, psychiatrists—strong in conjecture and anecdote, but low in experimental support. In 1983, psychiatrist Otto van der Hart suggested that rituals played an important role in increasing our involvement, or flow, in whatever activity we happened to be engaged in. The following year, anthropologist Linda Bennett and psychiatrist Steven Wolin examined the specific power of the family ritual, arguing that it helped form family identity and contributed to a sense of belonging—a theme later picked up by early childhood researchers who linked it to childhood wellbeing. In 1992, anthropologist Margaret Visser explored rituals surrounding meals, positing that these traditions helped stimulate desire and appreciation of eating. And repeatedly, scholars have called out the importance of ritual in areas as diverse as religion and sports performance. But though the anecdotal evidence for the effects of rituals on performance are strong—in one observational study, for instance, basketball players who stuck to established routine before free throws were successful more often than when they deviated from that routine—the actual experimental evidence has lagged behind. The closest work is on habit formation and reward—or, on the flip side, rituals that have become so heightened that they are signs of illness, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Last month, however, a group of psychologists from the University of Minnesota and Harvard Business School decided to manipulate ritualistic behavior in the lab and observe its effects on people’s enjoyment of and engagement in various activities. In a series of four studies, they had participants perform a ritual themselves, observe someone else performing it, or engage in random non-ritualistic activity prior to consuming chocolate, carrots, or lemonade. They then inquired about the nature of the experience: how enjoyable was it, how much did the participants feel active engagement in it, and the like. Finally, they took behavioral measures, such as the length of time participants took in savoring a bar of chocolate.

Want to enjoy these carrots more? Engage in a ritual prior to consuming.

In each study, the researchers found similar patterns. When participants engaged in a pre-consumption ritual—anything from breaking a chocolate bar in half and unwrapping and eating each half separately to rapping their knuckles on the table and closing their eyes prior to eating a series of carrots in a predetermined sequence—they anticipated the experience more highly, savored it longer, and enjoyed it more. They even found that the food they ate tasted more flavorful – and were willing to pay, on average, between fifteen and twenty-five cents more for it than when they hadn’t performed a pre-eating ritual. If they engaged in non-ritualistic acts, however, or observed someone else performing a ritual, the experiential effects went away.

In one final experiment, the psychologists turned to the underlying cause of their results: what exactly was it about ritual that so enhanced an experience as seemingly simple as eating a bar of chocolate or sipping a glass of lemonade? Positive emotion, an early contender, was quickly ruled out—there were no emotional differences between ritual and non-ritual participants. Neither did a sense of control, increased attention, or curiosity help explain the ritualistic boost. Instead, the explanation was, in some ways, a far simpler one: what mattered was intrinsic interest. When participants performed a ritual, they experienced heightened overall engagement—and that engagement, in turn, affected their entire experience.

It’s not so strange, then, that in ritual, artists find such consistent gratification and creative value. While ritual in itself may not play any role in the quality of the creative output, the simple act of engagement could heighten both anticipation and enjoyment of the entire creative process. And while the suffering artist is another stereotype that’s right up there with the quirky artist in popular appeal, when it comes to actual creative quality, few things beat the engaged mind.

Image credits: Mark Twain, portrait by A. F. Bradley, 1907, Wikimedia Commons. Carrots: John-Morgan, Flickr, Creative Commons.

Sources: Vohs KD, Wang Y, Gino F, & Norton MI (2013). Rituals Enhance Consumption. Psychological science PMID: 23863754

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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