From Scientific American, here's an excerpt:
Rituals take an extraordinary array of shapes and forms. At times performed in communal or religious settings, at times performed in solitude; at times involving fixed, repeated sequences of actions, at other times not. People engage in rituals with the intention of achieving a wide set of desired outcomes, from reducing their anxiety to boosting their confidence, alleviating their grief to performing well in a competition – or even making it rain.More:
Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Rituals in the face of losses such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship (or loss of limb from shark bite) are ubiquitous. There is such a wide variety of known mourning rituals that they can even be contradictory: crying near the dying is viewed as disruptive by Tibetan Buddhists but as a sign of respect by Catholic Latinos; Hindu rituals encourage the removal of hair during mourning, while growing hair (in the form of a beard) is the preferred ritual for Jewish males.More:
People perform mourning rituals in an effort to alleviate their grief – but do they work? Our research suggests they do. In one of our experiments, we asked people to recall and write about the death of a loved one or the end of a close relationship. Some also wrote about a ritual they performed after experiencing the loss:
I used to play the song by Natalie Cole “I miss you like crazy” and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom.
I looked for all the pictures we took together during the time we dated. I then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burnt them in the park where we first kissed.
We found that people who wrote about engaging in a ritual reported feeling less grief than did those who only wrote about the loss.
Rituals appear to be effective, but, given the wide variety of rituals documented by social scientists, do we know which types of rituals work best? In a recent study conducted in Brazil, researchers studied people who perform simpatias: formulaic rituals that are used for solving problems such as quitting smoking, curing asthma, and warding off bad luck. People perceive simpatias to be more effective depending on the number of steps involved, the repetition of procedures, and whether the steps are performed at a specified time. While more research is needed, these intriguing results suggest that the specific nature of rituals may be crucial in understanding when they work – and when they do not.