On 21 August 2018, Francesca Gino’s “Need More Self-Control? Try a Simple Ritual” appeared in the online Scientific American. Gino opens her piece by asserting a problem to address–lack of self-control, particularly as related to eating–and notes its persistent study by scholars and entrepreneurs. She then notes several previously attempted solutions to the problem and their deficiencies before pivoting to her central idea: ritual offers a path to self-control. The piece then offers a simple, working definition of ritual and references Gino’s previous work on rituals, explicating the methods and results of two studies she helped to conduct. A warning about over-reliance on ritual follows, succeeded by a brief explanation of how the observed effects may come to be. Gino’s piece concludes with connections to lived experience and a return to the chocolate cake mentioned in the piece’s opening, a closure that seems in good taste.
I forget how Gino’s piece came to my attention, although I am likely to put it forward to my students as a useful example of expository writing; it moves well and reads easily, and if the conventions of citation are not those I am obliged to require of my pupils, they are excellently done within the context of the piece’s presentation. Aside from such use, though, and from allowing a groaner of a joke in its summary, the article has strangely stuck in my head.
Ritual is commonly associated with religious practice and with group identity, as Gino motions toward near the end of her article. I am not a person of faith, as I have pointed out, and it has been some time since I was part of a group other than my family that has been around long enough for rituals to develop. (And I seem to set aside quite a few of those my family practices, as well, much to my parents’ consternation at holidays.) Yet I am also, in the event, somewhat superstitious–perhaps not in the ways enumerated by Stevie Wonder, but still beholden to practices that have little real effect. I will not leave a cup of coffee, once poured, undrunk, for example, and I always leave the porch-light on when someone–anyone–who belongs in my house is away from it. (Admittedly, that last is useful at night.) And I am always sure that the last thing I say to those I love is that I love them–not that it would help them or me not hurt were it the last thing they heard me say.
I do find myself nagged by unease when I neglect to do such things, so perhaps I would be the kind of person who would benefit from enacting some small ritual before I eat. To develop one ex nihilo seems somehow silly, though, so I am not sure what kind I would employ. I am already far sillier than I ought to be, and I do not think anyone is well served by my being sillier yet.