Scientific American on the mysterious benefit and power behind “irrational” rituals:
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, performing well in a competition – or even making it rain.
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 do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks 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.
Humans feel uncertain and anxious in a host of situations. In the late 1940s, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski suggested that people are more likely to turn to rituals when they face situations where the outcome is important and uncertain and beyond their control.
Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true.