Rituals Without Religion (with Michael Norton)
Apr 8 2024

31HtzqDqnL._SY445_SX342_.jpg While religion may play less of a role in many people's lives, rituals--the lifeblood of religion--remain central to the human experience. Listen as Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School explains how and why rituals remain at the center of our lives--they give meaning to life-cycle events and secular holidays, calm our fears, and give us a sense of control when the pressure to perform can otherwise overwhelm us.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
Apr 10 2024 at 5:35am

This was a very pleasant and informative conversation. The description of the funeral while the person is still alive and can appreciate how others appreciated them was most interesting. Another original practice at funerals is having a film of the person who has passed away speaking and saying appreciative farewells to the mourners.


Erick Mead
Apr 12 2024 at 8:39am

Very good topic and discussion.  I am curious however, about whether he looked at the inverse of this tendency – a lack of ease in forming habits and a seeming lack of personal ritual behavior.

A good example compared to the discussion: I have no pattern to my morning preparations, order of daily hygiene, or things like that. While I drink coffee nearly every morning, I noticed this absence of pattern-behavior when I realized that over a period of 2 weeks in making my coffee – even with the same machine – I had not made coffee in the same order of steps twice.  I hardly ever take the same route to work two days in a row.   I seem to develop no fixed order of operations for anything, and yet I know all the things to do just fine and they get done.

It’s not that am averse to a fixed pattern – it just doesn’t seem to happen.  I am religious, but what I get in participating in prayer and services seems different from the way others receive it.  I’ve always had severe difficulty with verbal rote memory, though my language and pattern-recognition skills (I’m an attorney) are quite high.  In fact, things out of place or that break a pattern jump out at me, even though I could not for the life of me maintain any such sense of regular order in a room. And yet my musical rote memory is much better than average; I can whistle songs I have not heard for years from beginning to end, but lyrics are spotty at best even for songs I have heard many times.

Anyway, it struck me from the discussion that I seem to be an outlier on the other tail of this spectrum of human behavior, and that other end might be interesting to explore with another guest sometime.

Again, always love the show, and the recent guests on topics relating to the war have been very insightful.

Thanks for Econtalk.  It is a bright spot in a world with too few.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: March 19, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is March 19th, 2024. And, my guest is psychologist Michael Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is the author of The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual. Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. And that book is our topic for today. Michael, welcome to EconTalk.

Michael Norton: Russ, thanks so much for having me.


Russ Roberts: Let's start with the difference between habit and ritual. And, I'm going to throw in routine. It's not your subtitle, but you do talk about routine. So, as individuals, we have habits, we have routines, and we have rituals. They are somewhat similar, but they have very, very important differences.

Michael Norton: That's right. I think that sometimes we use the word habit to refer to ritual. Sometimes we use ritual to refer to habit, and so we have been trying in our research to tease apart really what are the differences between these. And, I do think, as you said, that it ends up being quite important.

So, for me, habits and routines are things that are a bit dry. They're unemotional. They are tasks that we need to get done, and when we do them, we can check them off our list. And good habits are great. I'm not anti-habit in any way. I should have better habits; I should exercise more and things like that. But, they are kind of a box-checking exercise, often.

Rituals, I think, are a bit more emotional and a bit more meaningful. They have more in them than just checking off a box. And, a silly example that I use, but I do think it highlights something, is if I ask people, 'Do you brush your teeth first and then shower or do you shower and then brush your teeth?' First off, weirdly, about half of people do one and half of people do the other. But, the important thing is if I say, 'Hey, tomorrow morning or tonight before you go to bed, could you switch the order?' And, about half of people say, 'Sure, no problem.' And, what would you say?

Russ Roberts: I would say that would be weird.

Michael Norton: It would be weird. They say, 'Weird, odd, I don't want to.' And, if I say, 'Why?' they say, 'I don't know exactly, but I don't want to.' And, for me, that's starting to get the difference between a habit and a ritual. So, if you can flip the order of those, they're habits, they're tasks, you got to clean your face, you got to clean your body, whatever. But, if the order matters to you, if for some reason you feel like, 'Mm, I'd rather do that than that, than that,' it's starting to be a bit more ritualistic, bcause you can feel emotion in you as you think about it in a way that you might not with habits.

Now when I say ritual, I don't mean people in robes with candles. That's very far down the continuum from habit to ritual. But, as soon as we start to have that extra emotion, that feeling, that meaning, that preference to do it one way versus the other, I think we're moving toward more ritualistic and away from kind of a dry habit.

Russ Roberts: And then, a routine would be--to me it's more like I brush my teeth every twice a day is my routine. The habit is I do it after I shower. I just had to think there for a minute. And, the ritual would be, I have an incantation. I say when I spread the toothpaste onto the toothbrush, and I brush a certain number of times that evokes the infinity of the universe and, etc.

Michael Norton: That's far down the continuum, I think, for sure. But, even with something, for example, like how you brush your teeth, it turns out that we have preferences for that. So, if you think of brushing your teeth, if you do it next time, you start in the same place, you do things, you end in the same place; and that also feels good. Now, you could brush your teeth in any order you want. The point is to get them clean. But, we have these feelings that if we do it in this particular way, in the way that I like to do it, it feels different to us. And, that again, is more than just a habit. It's doing something else for us that's a bit more emotional.

Russ Roberts: But, I want to disagree a little bit, which is kind of absurd: You wrote a book on ritual, and I didn't. But habits are things we become accustomed to and why that is the case I think is fascinating. My 20-month year-old granddaughter must start her breakfast with a banana and we'll be the person who tries to provide an apple or the oatmeal before the banana. And those are habits, to me. She has emotions about them. But, for me, ritual is more about meaning. Now, I think your book is about different kinds of rituals, which is why you're allowed to call them whatever you want, but make a distinction between rituals that have emotional resonance with us, but also have--I think there is a category of ritual that's deeper.

Michael Norton: I think that's true. I think if you think of the word 'ritual'--so there's overlap between rituals and habits as we're discussing right now, but the word 'ritual' is used for many things that really don't have much to do with habits at all. So for example, a wedding is a ritual, and hopefully we're not making a habit out of having a wedding every week with a new person or something like that. Funerals are a ritual.

So, the rituals, to your point, are a very broad, very emotional category of activities humans engage with. Some of them are at a cultural level, some of them have deep religious meaning; but some of them are these little ones that people do in their everyday lives that aren't at the scale of ones with long history, but they do still have a little bit of that emotion and meaning in them. We prefer to do it this way because I'll feel ready to start the day if I brush my teeth this way versus that way.


Russ Roberts: But, why is it--and you talk about athletes who have extended rituals for their either preparation for performance, either in sports or in music, in the case of musical performers, why do you think we like them? One thing that's nice about your book is it forces you to recognize there's rituals all around. They're not religious, which is our usual connotation of the word. But, why are they comforting? Why does my granddaughter, for example, love her rituals? Why did my children love the rituals? In fact, to the point where it's multistep, it's not the banana starts the thing, bedtime had a--

Michael Norton: Of course--

Russ Roberts: very fixed rhythm to it. Why do the human beings like that, and why do athletes find that calming, which is I think the main reason they perform these rituals?

Michael Norton: I have to say that when I started studying rituals, I was doing it from a kind of removed scientific standpoint, studying what other people were doing as scientists sometimes do. And, when my wife and I had our daughter, we immediately--you take a kid home from the hospital and suddenly you're responsible for a human. And, one of the things they need to do is sleep. We didn't think of it as a ritual. We didn't use the word ritual, but in retrospect it was like, 'This stuffed animal, then this song, then we'll do this book, then we'll have this little snack and then we'll do that book. And then, this other song.' We really turned to--just like with your granddaughter--ritualistic behavior to try to ease her to sleep. And, I think I believe that it helped her sleep. But, what I do know is it very much helped us cope with the stress, because it's so chaotic--you know, when you have a baby, everything is brand new to you.

And that, I think, is telling--that we thought we were doing it for her, but a little bit, we were doing it to help us manage our own stress. And, you do see in the research that as things become more stressful, people are more likely to bring ritual to bear. So, it's almost as though we have within us a sense of, as things get very, very stressful, let's pull ritual, as one. We can use many tools; we can take medication. There's all kinds of things we can use. But, one of the things that we use now and throughout history is ritual. We turn to them, we create them, we rely on them in these moments of stress.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Obviously, rituals, when we're autonomous as adults, not as children, but I think it works the same for children. It's a form of control in an uncontrolled world. I like to joke that when you get sent home from the hospital with the kid, they don't give you a manual. There's a lot of books--there's plenty of books on it. They don't help much. They help a little bit. Don't want to say not at all, but there's no real manual. And, I've never told a expectant parent, 'Oh, you're going to want to have a bedtime ritual.' I think every parent finds out that they have one very quickly.

And, one of the reasons they find out is that if you deviate from it, you'll be shouted down from the heavens by a very small, but very loud creature who is announcing a violation--literally a violation, an unacceptable break in routine--which is effectively, becomes a ritual. And, I wonder if how much that is the chaotic nature of, 'You think your life is chaotic?' Think about your kid who is in the womb, no worries, nothing to ever think about, and all of a sudden is in this very bright world with people in it. So, maybe rituals for newborns--and we never quite lose this--are our way of coping with the loss of control. I don't know.

Michael Norton: Yeah. And, we do see, for example, that I think that a thing that we're not built to do as humans, unfortunately, is just to tell ourselves to feel a certain way and then we can feel that way. It would be great if we worked that way, but we don't.

So, if I'm very, very anxious about something, I can't magically just say, 'Calm down.' And, immediately I'm calm. I wish I could, but it's just not how we're built. And so, we do all kinds of things to try to get that sense of calm. And, again, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy. There's many, many things that humans have come up with to help us. But, as you said, I think in these moments where everything is chaotic, one of the things that we say is let's do something orderly and repeated and see if that can help us get a little bit more sense of having a grip on things.

Russ Roberts: That inability to take suggestions from yourself, which should be a piece of cake. If it's irrational to be nervous, reminding yourself of that doesn't help us--which is always fascinating to me.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to ask you a question about athletes. It's a little bit off the subject. Wade Boggs, baseball player, you mention--very, very into rituals. You only scratch the surface, as I'm sure you know. He ate chicken before every meal. He had to make certain Hebrew letters in the dirt with his bat. He was a strange person, at least in his rituals. But, he's really good at what he does. He's in the Hall of Fame. Now he did fail two out of three times. That's the nature of being a baseball hitter. But, I always find it fascinating that certain performers are terrified despite being at a world-class level. While I suspect, and I might be wrong, others are more relaxed. Are there any great musical performers you think or great athletes who don't get nervous?

Michael Norton: I'm trying to think if we came across any who have no sense of nerves before these big performances. I think that there's been--for example, studies of baseball players. Wade Boggs is one of the extreme examples, but there are other extreme examples. Another Red Sox player, Nomar Garciaparra, was famous for his very elaborate rituals when he was hitting. This study showed--so they videotaped baseball players at that, and they found that they made an average of 83 movements. Now that's a lot of movement. And that's for each time they're going to swing--you know, tapping the plate, touching the glove. You can think of all these movements that you would count. And, of course, they're very regular. Right? So, if you do 83, you kind of do the same 83 each time, but there's variance in it. So, some people do many fewer movements, some people do more movements.

So, I do think there's a sense that some people use it more or have more elaborate rituals than others; but I don't know of any really high-class performer--I've not come across one who doesn't have something at least that they do, some little preference or way that they do things or how they put their shoes on or how they walk on stage that isn't a little bit ritualistic in the sense that they could put their shoes on any way they want. They could walk on stage from the right instead of the left, but they just really want to do it the way that they've done it for years and years. It just makes them feel, 'Okay, I've got this. I'm ready to go.'

Russ Roberts: I'm thinking about somebody like Yo-Yo Ma, one of the greatest cellists of our time versus, say, Mark Knopfler, one of my favorite guitarists. Mark Knopfler looks very relaxed up there. So does Yo-Yo Ma, to be honest. But I have a feeling Yo-Yo Ma has a lot of rituals that I wonder if Mark Knopfler does. I don't know. Does he have anxiety before he goes on stage that his solos are not going to be as good as they should be? I don't know. Maybe it's improv versus following a set score, but it seems kind of strange.

Michael Norton: Yeah, I think one of the things that's interesting is often these elite performers, they look perfectly calm, because they really are very, very good at what they're doing. As you said, 'Why would Wade Boggs be nervous about hitting? He's one of the greatest hitters ever. Why would Mark Knopfler be nervous about it? He's an amazing guitarist.' And yet, sometimes we see that it's these elite performers that rely on rituals even more than me, who has the pretty not very stressful life at all.

So, even though they're way better at things than me, they actually are still bringing more ritual to bear often, I think, in order to cope with the massive uncertainty that they have to experience. If my class doesn't go well today, not that huge of a deal. If Mark Knopfler falls on stage, it's on YouTube all over the world for the rest of his life. So, I do think that we do, and of a funny way, we ratchet it up when the stress gets more and more intense.

Russ Roberts: Just to make one last Boston sports reference, then we'll move away from both Boston and athletes. Larry Bird was famous as a trash talker. I think in his first three-point shooting contest in the locker room with the other contestants he said very calmly, 'Who's playing for second?' and, just let it lay there. And, he did win. He was the best three-point shooter of that group, and he proved it, at least in that small sample.

But, it's a fascinating thing that he exuded--he was famous for being calm on the court, but it's very possible now that I think about it, your insights, that his trash talking was his ritual of calming his own nerves. It's a bit of imposter syndrome. He's--an athlete, I think, often has to face the reality that maybe they're not what they used to be, or today they won't be at the level they want to be. And, there's luck. And, luck is painful. So trash talking as well as the glove adjusting, etc., of a baseball hitter, some of that maybe is just a way to assert, again, to assert control in a situation that's actually unbearable. And the calmest ones might be the most nervous. The calmest-appearing ones.

Michael Norton: I think that can be true. I promise we'll get off Boston sports, but Tom Brady was very well known for being incredibly calm under extreme pressure. In his seventh Super Bowl, he wasn't as rattled as someone in their first Super Bowl. And so, again, you might think, 'I bet he's calm all the time. I bet he never uses ritual.' But, there are funny stories, that: early in his career, they were on a losing streak. They took the game ball and Bill Belichick buried it and Brady went over and kicked it. He, like, kicked the dirt as if to say, 'We're leaving that football and that game behind us.' That's very, very ritualistic. And, he was using it there actually not to calm down before a game, but using a ritual to let something go and see if he could move forward.

So, even people who are calm and don't necessarily use them to calm down can use them in many other domains of life, which I find very interesting.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Let's talk about how different rituals do different things. I was surprised, unless maybe I missed it, but I don't think you talked about making tea. You talk about coffee at some point, but in Buddhism, tea-making is a thing; doing the dishes is a thing; and you do these things in a certain ritual manner to clear your head. And, the goal of the ritual is merely by focusing on the steps in and of themselves--so I understand it--you are clearing your head. Do you think that's true? And, is that important?

Michael Norton: There is some data that--so, if you think about when you are nervous and you engage in a ritual, why it might calm you down. One reason that it can calm you down is it actually clears your mind of some of the anxious thoughts because there's literally no room for them. Because if I am having to keep something in mind, 'I need to do this, then I need to do that. The seventh step from now is this, so I better do this now,' it's just harder for me to keep saying, 'You're going to blow it, you're going to blow it, you're going to blow it.' Because my voice is taken up by the ritual that I'm doing. And so, there is some evidence that part of why they're helpful is that in fact they just occupy us, move us away from the negative emotions we might be having and just free us up a little bit to be in the moment rather than be worried about the moment.

Russ Roberts: Now, your book focuses on the--there are some religious examples in your book, but most of your book is about non-religious examples. Religious examples throughout most of history were about either connecting to the divine as perceived by the person doing them or connecting to your tribe. They're about belonging, because you're doing things that the other adherents are doing, and thereby you feel part of something larger than yourself. Most of those religious rituals are unavailable to many people today because they don't have the belief. What do you think substitutes for that? What rituals are people using to fill that particular gap that I think is a very human one that people want to fill?

Michael Norton: Absolutely. If you look in human history, it's extraordinary that every culture and every religion has developed rituals that reflect the values of the culture or the values of the religion. Very, very different from each other, exactly what the rituals are. And, yet the impulse is there to develop these, to kind of say, 'This is who we are.'

I do think that when we lose some of those rituals, we could just say, 'Well, that's fine. We don't need them.' But, it doesn't seem to be what humans do. It seems like we come up with new ones. Which again, I think is kind of suggesting there's something in us that really likes these.

One example would be something like Burning Man, where that's not religious. It's not a thousand years old. But, you do a pilgrimage to a desert with like-minded people in order to connect, and then you burn a figure at the end. It's very, very ritualistic. It doesn't have the element of faith that some other rituals do.

But, I also think at a more local level, I think people through time, of course, but have their own family rituals. And, those family rituals can do many of the same things. Right? They can give you meaning, they can give you a sense of place, they can give you a sense of history. When we make this apple pie that is my great-great-grandmother's recipe, by making that pie, I'm actually connecting myself back generations in my family in a way that's hard to do without having some of these rituals in place. So we do, at kind of at a more micro level, create very similar things with our family dynamics in order, I think, to have those same kinds of feeling of connectedness, of meaning, of belonging. And, we do see in the research, families with rituals do feel closer together to each other than families that lack rituals.


Russ Roberts: Now, mourning--dealing with death--is an obvious case where through all of every culture, as you say, every religion has not just rituals around mourning, but often very elaborate ones. I vividly remember talking to Michael Brendan Dougherty about his book--I think I might get the name wrong--My Father Left Me Ireland. Is that the name of it? I hope. I hope that's the name, but I'll look it up later and we'll correct it in the notes if I got it wrong.

But, he didn't have--he had Irish roots: his father was from Ireland, his mother was from Ireland; but she moved to the United States, and he didn't get passed on any Irish traditions. And, he resented it deeply. And, I said, 'Well, in a way, you'd think it'd be better because--then you could just choose the best one,' when somebody dies. You don't have to be stuck with a wake and other Irish habits. You could choose your own: pick a Native American piece from there and another piece from Buddhism. But of course, we want our mourning rituals, and we want our great-great grandmother's cake, not your great-great grandmother's cake. Even if it tastes better than mine, I don't care. How strange is that?

Michael Norton: It's very interesting. That if you think of mourning:, what are we using rituals for when we mourn? We're using it for lots of things, but one of the things we're using them--for many people, they're using them to connect to their faith and help them deal with their grief through faith. But, for many, many people, what they do is they offer, in a sense, an obligation. You could say an excuse to get together, or you could say an obligation to get together where everyone who knew this person has to come and gather on this day because our faith or culture says, 'No, two days after.' Or, 'Five days after.' Or, 'One day before the funeral we do this.' Different cultures have different ways of dealing with grief, but you have to do it.

And, I think if you think of grief as a lot of it is internal, you're just coping with your own grief. But, a lot of it is social. We need social support to get through grief. And, funerals are in a sense, they make everyone who we love gather around us at least for one day. And, I think that's very, very powerful.

And, to your point, when we lose those, we don't just say, 'Well, no more rituals, no more religious rituals. So, let's not have anything.' People come up with a different kind of non-religious service, a memorial service to serve the same function. So, even though the traditional ritual might not be in place, it's as though we're aware as humans: You know what? These are very, very important to do these things when someone passes away. Let's develop our own to make sure that we have some of these features in place.

Russ Roberts: Two of my favorite stories in the book are related to death and mourning. Talk about what happened to Mike Brick, the musician, when he was dying.

Michael Norton: So fascinating. We think of death and memorials--literally memorial service is memory--meaning the person is gone and we remember them. And people make wonderful speeches about how meaningful this person was in their life and how much they loved them. And, Mike Brick, when he was diagnosed with cancer, they started planning something like that, and then suddenly they said, 'Why would we do this after you're gone?' Why would everyone stand up and say how much they loved you when you're not there anymore? And, once you hear that, you say, 'My goodness, that's so obvious, of course, that we should have'--I don't know--they're not memorial, they're pre-memorial or whatever we might call them.

And that's exactly what they did. Instead of doing it after they created this ceremony before where they could really do all the things that they loved, including play music. And, I think it's such a wonderful example of rethinking what we are trying to do when we are going to be faced with grief. Absolutely there is nothing wrong with waiting until the person is gone and then having a funeral or another service, of course; it could be incredibly meaningful for people. But we also have other opportunities, and I think that Mike Brick and his wife said, 'We could still do that if we want to, but why don't we also do something while you are still here to honor you before you go?'

Russ Roberts: When I read that story, I found it so moving. It brought tears to my eyes. And, now that you're telling it, I'm thinking, 'But, what did they do when he did die?' That's my first thought, which of course, I'm sure they had a funeral.

Michael Norton: He was actually Catholic, so they did have a Catholic mass in the kind of traditional way. So, interestingly to your earlier point, they did a little bit of both. They relied on religious rituals and expressed their faith, and they also developed their own novel ritual to get some of these other elements as well.

Russ Roberts: And, I've never been to anything like that pre-memorial. And, part of me is thinking, 'Oh, it must've been very incredibly sad.' It was bittersweet: It's one of the things that I think are some of the best moments in our lives are the mixture of the bitter and sweet. So, here's a person who is dying, who is performing a song with his band that everyone loves and realizing they'll never hear it again from that person. And, that's heartbreaking. At the same time--and you think, 'Well, how could that have been an enjoyable experience?' And, yet it's all of life. All of life is you say, 'Well, you couldn't have enjoyed it. He's going to die soon.' But, we're all going to die soon. And, enjoying and feeling the joy of being with dozens, if not hundreds of people that love you and that you love is special. Doing it two weeks before you die, versus two months before you die, versus two years before you die, really, it's kind of the same parade. I don't know.

Michael Norton: One of the things that this research on rituals has really made me rethink is in fact the timing of them. When do we do them and when do we not do them? Even something like a wedding anniversary. We got married on this date in June, whatever it might be, and then every year on that date, we do something. But, why only do it once a year? You know what I mean? We're not bound to only celebrate our marriage once a year. We can do it whenever we want.

Or, I think of retirement ceremonies. People stand up and say, 'This woman was the greatest boss I ever had. She completely changed my life,' on the last day that this woman is ever going to work for the company. What a funny thing to do. Why not say it a year before or five years before, how much people mean to us?

So, you can see why these things are in place with the timing that they have. But I do think we have lots of opportunities to insert other practices, to do things before people are going to leave or before things happen, to honor them and express gratitude and enjoy them and enjoy being with each other.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, my wedding anniversary is June 25th, which means my half-anniversary is December 25th. And being Jewish, December 25th--you know, it's a nice day, but--

Michael Norton: It's a free day.

Russ Roberts: Now it's my half-anniversary; and it looks like the world is lit up. Just look at all those special lights for us.

Michael Norton: I love that. I love that.

Russ Roberts: But, we should try to think about it. It's kind of sweet.

Michael Norton: It's terrific.


Russ Roberts: What are your rituals, Michael? I'm sure you realized you had some you didn't have, once you wrote this book or when you started this research. Do have rituals you could share?

Michael Norton: We've, for sure, had and have rituals. Our daughter is now eight, but we have and had rituals at her bedtime, for sure. They get less and less as kids get older and learn how to sleep on their own. Again, showing how we calibrate rituals to the size of the need. But, we had things--like, one of the things that she used to do was I would be carrying her up to her bedroom and she would say 'Good night' to the stairs. That became a thing. And, I, as the stairs would have to say, 'Good night.' Now, where did that come from? I have absolutely no idea what started that. And yet, it became something that we'd got to do every night. And, if we forgot to do it: 'Let's go back down the stairs, say good night to the stairs.' Say 'Good night' to the stairs, and then go back.

So, in these very little ways, I think, as I started to look--almost literally look down at myself, like, 'What am I doing right now?' you start to see: 'You know what? I do have'--not everything I do is a ritual, obviously, but I do have some things that I really do pretty regularly that matter a lot. They have meaning in them and emotion in them; and they're doing something for me. I could skip them if I want. All I need to do is take her up the stairs. I don't need to say 'Good night' to the stairs. But something about those actions makes them a bit different, makes them a little more emotional, I think.

Russ Roberts: And, you know--there's something, going back to the bittersweet, the poignance of life--and, there comes a point where you can't carry her on your shoulder, and you'll still be thinking about those stairs, and it'll be so bittersweet. It's as sweet and as bitter as life can be. So special.

Michael Norton: I teach a class with undergraduates, of actually freshmen in college, about rituals. It's kind of a discussion class. And, one of the things that I ask them to do is call up their parents--or, I guess FaceTime, I don't know. But anyway, contact their parents and ask them--these kids are 18--and ask their parents, 'Hey, do you remember what you did when I was a baby or a toddler to get me to sleep?' And they say, their parents immediately start crying. Immediately. They remember every single thing. You know what I mean? Every single--every parent remembers all the things.

And, just to your point, it's incredibly wonderful memories of your child being that little.

And, you know: you can look at pictures and you can think of them, but some of these little ritualistic practices, they really do bring it back in a very different way. You can remember how heavy your kid was when you were carrying them from--it really, really can come back to you when you think back to these rituals that you randomly created about saying goodnight to the stairs. That's for me now a lifetime of amazing memory that I created, even though I recognize it's completely crazy to do something like that. It's not crazy if I get this much out of it.

Russ Roberts: And, I wouldn't call them rituals, but you do talk about it--at least as ritualistic--the vocabulary we develop with our spouse or partner or with our children, and it comes from the poems we read to them, the books we read to them, the movies we watch together, and then sometimes just inexplicable things that we can't--like, you can't remember why you say things you do that it just becomes--those are mostly habit, but they do have such a richness to them that they're much more than a habit.

Michael Norton: And you do also see, for example, that parents typically don't use the same nickname for each of their kids. That's kind of a little offensive. Why is it offensive? I don't know. But, it feels offensive. And we also--when couples have little nicknames for each other and the relationship--you know, Schmoober Bear, or whatever funny things we say--if somebody were to reuse that in their next relationship, just--you're just not allowed to do that. Because--

Russ Roberts: It's a violation--

Michael Norton: Exactly. I mean, truly a violation. Your ex is allowed to date other people and even marry them, but they are not allowed to use your pet nickname with that person.

Russ Roberts: No, no, no.

Michael Norton: That is off limits.

And I think, exactly to your point, these small words carry so much meaning in them that we remember them forever and get upset if things change.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Dana Gioia, the poet, has a beautiful poem on this. I'm not going to read it, but we'll link to that episode about the--which he read the poem on that episode--about the private language that couples have that's physical. The way they interact with each other physically is obviously a set of habits and routines, but that's much more than habits and routines. It becomes deeply related to how we see another person and how we feel about them, care about them, love them, and so on.


Russ Roberts: Now, you write about Ulay and Marina Abramovic--and I've forgotten how to pronounce her name. So, it's either A-bra-mo'-vich or A-bra'-mo-vich. But, we've talked about her on the program before--about the movie that was made of her. A time when she sat for hours in one place and people came by and just sat across from her for a period of time, and hundreds of people lined up just stare into her eyes.

But, I want you to set this up and talk about their relationship, because I did not know that backstory. We'll bring it back to the sitting-down thing. But tell us about the ritualistic nature. Oh my gosh, they're extraordinary.

Michael Norton: This is, I think, one of the most interesting couples that I came across, let's say in my research. Al couples, as we just discussed, have their own little ecosystem of language and movements and things like that. These two really took it to an extreme because nearly everything that they did was a highly, highly elaborate ritual. My favorite one was when the relationship was ending, what do you do? Usually you say, 'Good luck. Here's your stuff.' They decided that they would start at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and walk to the middle. And, when they got there, that would be the end of the relationship.

Now, the Great Wall of China is very--in fact, it's called a Great Wall--it's very, very long. So, what are they doing? Why would they start at opposite ends and meet in the middle?

Of course, partly it's, you know, a spectacle and interesting that they would do that. But, you can think about the process that they were going through in their heads on that long walk knowing that it was ending at the end of it. It's very, very different than if they just sat down in a coffee shop and ended it. They're doing something very special, I think, reflecting on the relationship as they walk so that when they meet in the middle, they really, I think, are ready to let it go, even though they were so incredibly close.

Russ Roberts: And, of course, everyone now when they want to break up with their partner, goes to the Great Wall of China. It's original; it didn't quite catch on. [inaudible 00:36:31]--

Michael Norton: It's hundreds of millions of couples--

Russ Roberts: What?--

Michael Norton: Hundreds of millions of couples--

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah: It's an annual thing; they do it on a certain day.

But, when they met, they realized that they shared rituals that were--they were the same before they met. Right?

Michael Norton: They wrote little words on a piece of paper that were in common. They had these very tiny, tiny examples of just being exactly the same person that became--for them, felt the idea that we share these must mean something more than just a random coincidence. It must mean something a little bit karmic or magical.

And, many of us do that in our relationships. If you find out you like the same band--obscure band--as someone, it really feels magical. You feel like, 'My God.' And then, you can go to the concert together; and that's magical for you as well. And then, you go every year on your anniversary or whatever it might be. We build in to these relationships[?]--theirs was very extreme. But, we do see in our research that all of us have these little things that we build into it that really become us and make us different from other relationships.

Russ Roberts: So, just to close out, Ulay--I think it's Ulay--and Marina, in her experience of sitting for--I think it was something like eight hours a day for--I don't know how many days, a lot of days--where all she did was sit and be stared at by a person across from her, and she stared back in return. And, I've always loved this. When you tell it to some people, they go, 'Well, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.' And, yet the very phenomenon of being seen and the attempt to connect visually with another human being is very powerful. And, many people in that encounter wept in her presence.

But, the part that's crazy--and I appreciate now more because of your book--is--and I don't know if it was staged or not, because they are performance artists, Ulay and Marina. They did a lot of performance art together, as you write about. But, he shows up in the chair across from her, and it seems to be without warning. I don't know if that's real or staged, but as far as I think it's described, she did not know. After that 'Great Wall of China'-thing, they didn't talk for--how long? Do you remember?

Michael Norton: I can't remember. Many, many years.

Russ Roberts: It was decades. I think it was 22 years. Not only did they not, quote, "run into each other," or catch up, say 'Hello': they didn't communicate, I think, at all. And, maybe until this moment when Ulay comes, unexpectedly, at least in the way it's told and sits across from her and just tears run down her face--it's an incredible moment.

I recommend that documentary. I'll put the link to a link-up to it, if you haven't seen it out there.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about work. We don't think about work as a ritual place. We think about maybe church, houses of worship. We might think about our hearth, our homestead, where we have some of the family rituals you've alluded to. Certainly, we have incredible rituals around holidays, mostly food-related. Work seems like to be the last place for ritual, and yet that's not the case. So, talk about rituals at work.

Michael Norton: This was a bit of a surprising realization that eventually became obvious, but I really wasn't thinking we'd see a lot in the workplace--because it's work. It's not home; it's not connection with people we love and all the other things that we've been talking about.

But then, if you think about how people scaffold their day--their workday--it's extremely ritualistic. So, you have, in the morning, you have to transition from your home-self to your work-self. Sometimes you have a commute that gives you some time to kind of transition from being goofy dad to having to teach a class. Those are slightly different roles. So, I need to do something to go from dad to professor on the way there.

And, many people report doing something that gets them ready to go. That literally--and, even back to tooth brushing and showering--when you do it in the order you like, you say, 'I feel ready for the day.' When people get to work, they often have a very specific order of things. They settle in at their desk. Some people do email, then chat with co-worker, then coffee. Other people say, 'It's got to be coffee first, and then this and this.' So, we kind of bookend the morning to separate these things.

At work when we're stressed out, people often do as we--not the professional athlete level of rituals--but people will do their own little ritual to calm themselves before a big meeting. Typically going to the bathroom and shout at yourself in the mirror--make sure nobody's in there--and say, 'You know, you can do this.' It's very, very common, actually.

Then we have our team rituals at work, which we can talk about a little bit as well. Not team rituals like screaming and shouting, but little practices that we have in our team that make us who we are. And then at the end of the day when we leave work, we have to transition back from work self to home self. And, people often do things there as well. We did a study with emergency room nurses, extremely stressful job, incredibly hard to leave work behind when you're in that kind of job. And, they tell us that they have sometimes very elaborate rituals to try to leave work behind so that they can go back and have a really nice dinner with their family.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, talk about those team ones that you mentioned.

Michael Norton: We asked people in teams--we don't usually say, 'Do you have any rituals?' beause that's kind of a leading question, but we'll ask questions like, 'Is there anything that your team does regularly that is distinctive to you and either fun or meaningful?' And, some teams say, 'Nope.' They say: Nothing at all. And that's what we thought we'd see at work, which is just, 'It's a bunch of people in there. I've got to work with them. Don't care about it.' One guy when we asked that question wrote, 'I do my work and then I go home.' That was the only response to this question.

But, other teams say things like, 'You know what? We actually do have something.' One team that stands out to me--it was a five-person team, and they decided that what they would do is each person was responsible for lunch one day of the week for the team, and they would rotate which day it was for each person. And, they did it for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. They kept doing this thing. Now what are they doing? You're going to eat lunch. We all can grab a sandwich. But, as a team, amazingly, what they're doing is each person is taking care of the team one day of the week. It's the same amount of money; it's the same amount of food; it's the same amount of time, even, that they're together. But they've changed it by this ritual into something that means something much more than the team. And we do see, when we ask if you have a ritual with your team versus not, teams that say, 'You know, we actually do something like that' tend to be more satisfied and see more meaning than people who say, 'I just do my work and go home.'

Russ Roberts: And, of course, an economist--not being a normal human beingmight--not being a good economist--might say, 'Well, it's more efficient because when you're making five sandwiches all at the same time, you can lay out the bread and only open the mustard once and do all five, and then it's easier. Therefore, there's economies of scale. And so, it's a transactional interaction that's done for efficiency purposes.' But you did not describe it that way, strangely enough--because you're not an economist and you're probably a normal human being. You said they take turns taking care of each other. And, of course, they're both true, but one of them uplifts and the other doesn't.

Michael Norton: And, you know, I think it's important, too, because we don't have a lot of time. We don't have a lot of free time in our lives, most of us, at this point. And so, if I were to say, 'You know, what's great, at work, is to take four hours every day and do this thing,' there's no way to do it. But, what we often find is that people are building them into things that are already happening. So, lunch is happening. Full stop: it's just you got to have lunch. So, it doesn't take more itime actually to engage in this. But, by changing it in these different ways, it actually becomes something much more meaningful.

And, I think for me, one of the things that's most fascinating about rituals is we take really mundane things and turn them into saying good night to the stairs. The stairs, suddenly what could be more mundane than stairs? Now they're meaningful. Eating lunch, it's just food. But, when we do it in this way now, it's an expression of our teammates and of our sense of a team.


Russ Roberts: You could probably write a book, or an encyclopedia, or a many-many-volumed work on the rituals around food. Some of them are religious, of course. Many of them are cultural. But, it's remarkable how little food is used for sustenance. You write about the product Soylent, and almost nobody looks at food as a way to stay alive--only.

Michael Norton: When people say, 'I don't have any rituals. I don't do any rituals,' there's a couple of questions that I'll ask.

So, one is just, 'Have you ever made a cake and very carefully frosted the cake so it looks really, really good? And then, as soon as you finish frosting the cake perfectly, so it looks really, really good, stuck a bunch of candles in it and lit them on fire so that the wax burns down onto the perfect cake, then put it in front of a kid who is probably sick and have them blow all over the cake to blow the candles out, and then eat the cake?' And, people say, 'Well, yeah, I've done that.'

And, I say, 'Does it make a lot of sense to ruin the--quote, unquote--"ruin the cake" like that?' They'll say, 'Well, no, but it's a birthday. It's a celebration.' So, we're taking the cake and--I mean, I like cake. Cake is delicious. But it's not just cake. It becomes something very different and very meaningful. And we're even willing to kind of ruin--I'm exaggerating--but ruin the food in order to get the ritual out of it, because that's really what's so important when we're consuming the cake.

Russ Roberts: The order with which we eat stuff, the--in fact, a lot of rituals are--I think, done to take away the nutritional aspect of food only. They're designed to slow us down. It's polite. I think in America--I don't do it; I'm a Philistine--to switch hands with your knife and fork, so you have to put the knife down after you've cut and then pick up the fork and then put the bite in your mouth. I always found that annoying; and I like to eat way too much, so I just cut away and eat. But, there are many things like that--certain traditions and customs of etiquette that are designed to elevate the nature of food, I assume.

Michael Norton: For sure. Another example that I love because it's across so many cultures, is: Have you ever taken a glass filled with a liquid and raised it up into the middle of the table and banged it against other people's glasses and said a one- or two-word phrase before you drank the liquid? People say, 'Of course.' And, whatever country they're from, I say, 'What do you say?' Different words in every country, but they usually mean health or luck or something else positive, when people say this--a celebration.' It's beer--whatever is in the glass. It's just a liquid in a sense if we go really basic. But, by doing the clink thing, what are we doing? We're changing it into something very, very different. It's a little quick opportunity to basically say, 'I like everybody here. I wish the best for all of you before we drink the liquid.' It's just liquid in a glass.

And, you mentioned tea earlier, that's just liquid in a glass. But, we're able to build so much emotion and meaning into these things. It's completely fascinating to me how much we use food and drink for all of these other goals.

Russ Roberts: I've been told we clink glasses to show that we're not afraid that the liquid is poisoned and that some of my drink will get into your glass and vice versa. That has never happened to me in my life as far as I know. And, I suspect that's one of those too-good-to-be-true stories. But, I have heard that, and that's one way of elevating the emotional resonance of merely drinking.

Michael Norton: It reminds me of a possibly-also-apocryphal story about the origin of handshaking, which was that when you extend your arm to shake hands with your enemy, it would cause any hidden daggers to fall out of your sleeve so that you could show them that you weren't going to stab them. I doubt it's exactly true like that, but I do think the fact that we even come up with these stories is quite interesting in of themselves.

Russ Roberts: But, of course, the flip side is also true. By grasping your hand, I am allowing you to have some level of control over me, and vice versa. I am reminded of the great Tim Conway in a skit on Carol Burnett when he greets Harvey Korman, who is a fellow slave on a Roman ship. Conway is the newbie. He sits down next to Harvey and shakes his hand, says, 'Hi, I'm a leper.' It's a joke that you can't make in 2024. It's probably inappropriate. We may have to cut this out, folks, I don't know. But, it is an example of how there's a certain level of trust in shaking hands akin to the clinking of glasses.

Michael Norton: Even just getting that close to someone--

Russ Roberts: Physically. Yeah--

Michael Norton: requires an enormous amount of trust and good will. So, it's a risk that we take in order to show: let's actually try to be amicable.

Russ Roberts: And, I thought one of the worst things about COVID was staying apart from people physically, because we were afraid. Obviously, we didn't shake hands. In the beginning we didn't shake hands because we thought it was passed maybe through touch. Later we didn't shake hands because we didn't want to get that close to people physically. We wanted to be six feet apart.

Michael Norton: And I've found--having studied ritual for so long, I found fascinating in COVID that you could just abandon the practice altogether. But, what people do is they improvise. So, the elbow, exactly. We both just raised our elbows. What an odd behavior to hit elbows with someone that you've never done in your life. Why do we do it? Because we still want some of that physical connection, some of that ritual; and we look at our bodies and say, 'Is there anything else we can use that's safer than our hands?' And, we come up with elbows. So, we start clinking elbows instead of shaking hands.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, it was remarkably unconscious. Nobody said, 'Hey, you could do this.'

Michael Norton: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: It just, everybody did it without thinking.

Michael Norton: Exactly.


Russ Roberts: I forgot. When we were talking about mourning, I wanted you to talk about Dan Wegner and his funeral. Tell us about Dan and what happened at his funeral.

Michael Norton: Dan Wegner was a professor of psychology at Harvard and one of my absolute academic heroes, both because he was brilliant and also because he was a wonderful mentor to the students and others that worked with him. But, he was also extremely silly at the same time, which was part of his charm. He always wore these giant, very loud Hawaiian shirts to work. You know: a Harvard professor is supposed to dress in a certain way with tweed patches or whatever it might be, and he said, 'Absolutely not.' He wore these Hawaiian shirts.

And so, at his memorial service, he asked that everybody wear these crazy Hawaiian shirts to honor him. And, he also just thought it would be funny. And, he and his family had a tradition of collecting Groucho Marx glasses--the plastic things with the fake mustache--because his daughters like them, and that's something they did as a family. So, he also said, 'Hey, would everybody mind wearing that, as well?' So, you go into a funeral expecting all black or all white, depending on your culture, and instead you've got Hawaiian shirts and Groucho Marx masks on a bunch of the people there. It's a somber occasion for sure. Everybody was devastated to lose this wonderful person. But he wanted to make sure that it was also a celebration and also funny. And you can have both of those things happening at the very same time.

Russ Roberts: Well, he was like Mike Brick, who we talked about earlier, because he was kind of at his own memorial service, very powerfully. Any memorial service that's any good, of course, has the person's memories there. But, this is a pretty intense way to do it. What proportion--you were there?

Michael Norton: Yes.

Russ Roberts: Did you wear the Hawaiian shirt?

Michael Norton: I did.

Russ Roberts: Did you wear the glasses?

Michael Norton: I couldn't find any in time, actually.

Russ Roberts: Hard to do on a short notice. I understand.

Michael Norton: Yes, I really wanted that. Many, many people had the full regalia.

Russ Roberts: Half?

Michael Norton: I would say at least half.

Russ Roberts: And, did they keep the glasses and mustache nose combo on the whole time, or did they just make an appearance and then take them off?

Michael Norton: That's a great question. I don't remember, actually. Some people for sure kept them the whole time. I think a lot of people kind of represented that his wish was: wear the shirt and wear the glasses. And I think it was, 'I'm going to do this to honor him, but maybe not keep it for the entire time.'

Russ Roberts: I'm thinking about your toothbrushing question that opened our conversation. And, I suspect within our audience, there's a pretty sharp divide between people who think that the Hawaiian shirt/Groucho Marx thing was the greatest idea of all time versus those who find it appalling. Did people talk about it at the event and afterward?

Michael Norton: Yeah. I didn't talk to anyone who thought it was in the camp of appalling, I guess I would say. I think--

Russ Roberts: That's because they knew him.

Michael Norton: Yes.

Russ Roberts: If you ask people listening right now, 'What do you think of that? Does that sound like fun? or appropriate?' I think about some significant number would say, 'No.'

Michael Norton: I think also, if you wandered in off the street and saw this and you said, 'What's going on in there?' I doubt you would say, 'Probably a funeral.' So, I do think there's some sense--we have this schema of what grief should look like, and it can be hard sometimes to do something different from that schema.


Russ Roberts: One of the best chapters in the book is built around a great insight, which is that rituals obviously usually connect us. We have a certain kind of turkey. It's cooked a certain way. Everybody's house has a certain kind of turkey, cooked a certain way, served with a certain kind of stuffing, served with a certain kind of gravy, or not, depending on the house. So, rituals obviously bring us together. And, yet, as you would point out, they also divide us. And, I thought that was a great insight. How? How do rituals divide us?

Michael Norton: A common experience for younger people is--let's stick to the United States and Thanksgiving, for example--when you're 18, you've been doing Thanksgiving your whole life. It's delivered to you by your family. And, for many young people, it's kind of annoying. All these people are in the house, 'I don't even like turkey.' 'Why do we have all this kind of stuffing?' I don't know. Not a big deal. Until they have a significant other, and for the first time they go to somebody else's Thanksgiving. And then they have the feeling--and they'll use this word--'They're doing it wrong.' That's what they say. 'The turkey is prepared wrong. They don't have this pie. Who eats at this time? You're supposed to eat at this time. Why is there football on?' Or, 'Why is there not football on?' And, it really shows you that, 'Oh, my way, I didn't even realize it. But, I actually do think that my family's way is the correct way to do Thanksgiving, and these other families are doing it incorrectly.'

You see this, of course, in interfaith relationships and interfaith marriages where you have religious differences that have to be ironed out and compromised. And so, you do see that these same rituals that can be very meaningful and connecting at the very same time can start to divide us from other people. Because sometimes our rituals don't just feel good to us. They feel right. They feel correct. And, that feeling can be very, very corrosive because if I'm correct--to use your word--any deviation is a violation, and therefore I'm upset about it and something must be done about it. And, at the level of Thanksgiving, of course, you can see it happening. And, obviously you can see it in what happens in the world where religions with different practices are in conflict--for many reasons, but one is actually the practices themselves. It's almost, 'You are not doing it correctly. We are doing it correctly.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. For sure.


Russ Roberts: Let's close with some advice. I liked a lot of things about your book, but one of the things I liked is it sensitizes you to the rituals in your life. I'm a religious Jew. I have way too many rituals for most people. They come effortlessly to me. And, I think there's a really interesting question of--you suggest at one point--I think that religion and rituals can bring self-control. I also think it goes the other way. You have so many requirements, often, in your religion that you're desperate to break out somewhere else. And, if it's legal and within the religion, you're going to take advantage of it. So, I think it's kind of complicated. But, one of the things your book does is it forced you to realize that whatever things you know of as rituals in your life, you have others that you don't recognize that are rituals also. Other than that sensitivity, do you have any advice for our listeners about ritual in their life?

Michael Norton: I do think noticing your own is fantastic. If you still are thinking, 'I don't have any,' I would encourage you to ask your children or your spouse or your co-workers, and they may have a different view of the various interesting behaviors that you have.

So, one quick one is for sure: Be sensitive to your own.

Another one is: Do a little research with the people who know you best and see what's happening.

And then, I think the final one is to think of rituals as something that--they're tools that you can play with. They're not only the ones that are received through time or through religion, although again, those are incredibly important and meaningful in people's lives. But, that we can also flexibly try our own rituals with our own family, with our own kids at bedtime. Think about playing with them a little bit. When you try these out, you might find that it's a waste of your time: it didn't do anything for you. But, sometimes when you try these things out, they become the practices that actually end up having a lot of meaning for you. And, you're going to be saying, 'Good night' to the stairs for the rest of your life, because you tried that out and it ended up being something very special with you and your family.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Michael Norton. His book is The Ritual Effect. Michael, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Michael Norton: Thank you so much, Russ.