How doing a simple ritual before performing reduces anxiety and improves results

This was shown in a brilliant (and fun) study published back in 2014.

As well as destroying long-term health, excessive stress/anxiety impairs short-term performance.

Whether you’re going on stage to give a talk, entering a room to negotiate a deal, or standing on the start line to begin a race, you will get the best results if you’re alert but calm.

Excessive stress/anxiety is the enemy of performance. The literature is clear on this. And it was shown once again in this study.

But – helpfully – this study (actually, several different studies published in one paper) also tested a solution: Rituals. And they worked!

Rituals are pre-defined sequences of behaviours, with some symbolic meaning (to you), but not necessarily instrumental to the subsequent task.

A good – and famous – example is the haka performed by the New Zealand All Blacks before every match. But a ritual can be as simple as repeating some words to yourself, or straightening your clothes in a particular sequence, or shaking hands with your colleagues.

To test whether doing a ritual reduces anxiety and, thereby, improves performance, you would need: An anxiety-inducing performance of some kind (with measurable results); validated measures of anxiety; a pre-defined ritual; and some willing participants. All put together in clever randomised controlled trials. And that’s exactly what these researchers – from Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, and Wharton – did.

Here’s a summary of what they found:

  • Anxiety impaired performance
  • Rituals decreased anxiety (self-reported anxiety and heart rate)
  • Reduced anxiety (caused by the rituals) improved performance
  • The sequence of behaviours has to be called a ‘ritual’ to have these effects

The anxiety-inducing performances were:

  1. To sing Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ in front of a live audience, with performance measured by singing-accuracy software
  2. To perform a maths test under time pressure, with monetary gains and losses, and publicly-shared results

The measures of anxiety were:

  1. The commonly used state-trait anxiety inventory (STAI) questionnaire
  2. Heart rate

The novel rituals were:

  1. Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash. (Used in the karaoke study)
  2. Count out loud slowly up to 10 from 0, then count back down to 0. You should say each number out loud and write each number on the piece of paper in front of you as you say it. You may use the entire paper. Sprinkle salt on your paper. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash. (Used in the maths test study)

So, the next time you’re about to start an important performance and you’re feeling the nerves, try doing a little ritual. It may help you feel calmer, which would likely improve your performance.

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