Why Christmas rituals make tasty food

All of us carry out rituals in our daily lives, whether it is shaking hands or clinking glasses before we drink. At this time of year, the performance of customs and traditions is widespread – from sharing crackers, to pulling the wishbone on the turkey and lighting the Christmas pudding.

These rituals might seem like light-hearted traditions, but I’m going to try and persuade you that they are echoes of our evolutionary history, something which can tell us about how humans came to relate to each other before we had language. And the story starts by exploring how rituals can make our food much tastier.

In recent years, studies have suggested that performing small rituals can influence people’s enjoyment of what they eat. In one experiment, Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota and colleagues explored how ritual affected people’s experience of eating a chocolate bar. Half of the people in the study were instructed to relax for a moment and then eat the chocolate bar as they normally would. The other half were given a simple ritual to perform, which involved breaking the chocolate bar in half while it was still inside its wrapper, and then unwrapping each half and eating it in turn.

Something about carefully following these instructions before eating the chocolate bar had a dramatic effect. People who had focused on the ritual said they enjoyed eating the chocolate more, rating the experience 15% higher than the control group. They also spent longer eating the chocolate, savouring the flavour for 50% longer than the control group. Perhaps most persuasively, they also said they would pay almost twice as much for such a chocolate.

This experiment shows that a small act can significantly increase the value we get from a simple food experience. Vohs and colleagues went on to test the next obvious question – how exactly do rituals work this magic? Repeating the experiment, they asked participants to describe and rate the act of eating the chocolate bar. Was it fun? Boring? Interesting? This seemed to be a critical variable – those participants who were made to perform the ritual rated the experience as more fun, less boring and more interesting. Statistical analysis showed that this was the reason they enjoyed the chocolate more, and were more willing to pay extra.

So, rituals appear to make people pay attention to what they are doing, allowing them to concentrate their minds on the positives of a simple pleasure. But could there be more to rituals? Given that they appear in many realms of life that have nothing to do with food –from religious services to presidential inaugurations – could their performance have deeper roots in our evolutionary history? Attempting to answer the question takes us beyond the research I’ve been discussing so far and into the complex and controversial debate about the evolution of human nature.

In his book, The Symbolic Species, Terrance Deacon claims that ritual played a special role in human evolution, in particular, at the transition point where we began to acquire the building blocks of language. Deacon’s argument is that the very first “symbols” we used to communicate, the things that became the roots of human language, can’t have been anything like the words we use so easily and thoughtlessly today. He argues that these first symbols would have been made up of extended, effortful and complex sequences of behaviours performed in a group – in other words, rituals. These symbols were needed because of the way early humans arranged their family groups and, in particular, shared the products of hunting. Early humans needed a way to tell each other who had what responsibilities and which privileges; who was part of the family, and who could share the food, for instance. These ideas are particularly hard to refer to by pointing. Rituals, says Deacon, were the evolutionary answer to the conundrum of connecting human groups and checking they had a shared understanding of how the group worked.

If you buy this evolutionary story – and plenty don’t – it gives you a way to understand why exactly our minds might have a weakness for ritual. A small ritual makes food more enjoyable, but why does it have that effect? Deacon’s answer is that our love of rituals evolved with our need to share food. Early humans who enjoyed rituals had more offspring. I speculate that an easy shortcut for evolution to find to make us enjoy rituals is by connecting our minds to that the rituals make the food more enjoyable.

So, for those sitting down with family this holiday, don’t skip the traditional rituals – sing the songs, pull the crackers, clink the glasses and listen to Uncle Vinnie repeat his funny anecdotes for the hundredth time. The rituals will help you enjoy the food more, and carry with them an echo of our long history as a species, and all the feasts the tribe shared before there even was Christmas.

This is my latest column for BBC Future. You can see the original here. Merry Christmas y’all!

8 Comments

  1. Posted December 27, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    As all other such ‘studies’ selfreporting is proof of nothing more then how suggestible people are.

  2. Posted December 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I’m eating a candy like Skittles or M&Ms (and assuming I have the time to do so), ever since I was little I’ve always separated the bag of candy by colors. Whichever color has the smallest portion, I eat first, followed by the next largest portion, etc. I sometimes feel disappointed if my favorite color–green–has the smallest portion, but it doesn’t change the ritual of eating the smallest amount first. As you noted about the chocolate, this act prolongs the experience and (overall, at least) makes it more enjoyable for me.
    :-)

  3. Abigail Whitney
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I found this article interesting but without knowing anything about the evolutionary reasons for enjoying rituals, what I thought about while reading was that by slowing things down and paying attention to what one is doing the person is creating a more “mindful” act that is likely to result in feeling more satisfied/happier after.

    • deadendrite
      Posted December 27, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Yes… mindfulness is what I thought of also… I also thought of my ritual for morning coffee… which I suspect might slightly annoying for my husband… I must always sit down and drink my coffee while not being rushed and while quietly reading news or email etc. I won’t drink it on the run unless I have no choice and when I do it’s not the same at all.

      I feel sort of badly because I have given up on rituals around holidays as I believed it would help to reduce the “stress” of all the preparations. I have noticed how flat it has all become and I, perhaps mistakenly, have attributed that to age (i.e. been there, done that). But maybe it has simply become less special because I’ve stopped making it so.

      Great post.

  4. Daryl
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t make the direct leap to rituals as the cause for this phenomenon. It’s known that the brain decreases in activity when performing a habit. Perhaps for many people, eating has become some what of a habit in our crazy over-driven lives. In paying extra attention to preparing a meal for others; be it ritualistic for a holiday, or you’re just having friends over, you keep your mind more active on every aspect of the process than if you were making a meal for yourself. Just as making sure to follow the instructions to break up the chocolate before eating it keeps you mind focused on that chocolate. Another study I came across discussed how the level of detail and attention can affect your perception. The exercise mentioned was placing a needle against your finger until you feel a dull pain. While repeating the experiment (with the same amount of pressure on the needle) but this time while looking through a magnifier, the pain became very sharp and specific. I beleive the same to be going on here. You’re simply keeping your mind focused on whats in front of you, making the experience that much more enjoyable.

  5. Posted December 31, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I stopped buying snack-size Kit Kats for my lunch box when they started sealing them in a plastic wrapper; you could no longer slide your finger down the foil and snap the bar in two. Probably speaks more to how we eat our food rather than ritual, but like with breaking the wishbone, or all the other things that take place around the Christmas dinner table, the experience counts for a lot.

    • Ppub
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      I miss sliding my thumb down Kit Kats. :(

  6. Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Fascinating topic. If humans needed ritual / language for sharing food, I imagine they needed it even more for cooperative hunting. So they could bring down the large angry meal without getting skewered.

    Shipman claims language did come about to communicate prey and predator behavior to the “tribe” and this is also, she says, why we’re so fascinated with nonhuman animals and why we keep pets. Haven’t heard any feedback on that from other anthropologists.

    The Karhunpeijaiset in Finland goes back a long way and I’d think native peoples there might have stories about the ritual aspect of that – although I understand they didn’t always eat after the kill.


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