Study finds rituals can improve children’s ability to delay gratification

A cross-cultural study published in the journal Child Development has found that ritualistic behavior can improve children’s ability to delay gratification.

The 3-month-long study of 210 schoolchildren from Slovakia and Vanuatu found that special social games designed to improve children’s executive function and their ability to delay gratification were more effective when they were presented as rituals which had “always been done this way.”

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Veronika Rybanska of the University of Oxford. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Rybanska: Since the very beginning of my studies I have been doing research with children. I have started with topics like how and when do children learn various racial and ethnic classification, and who do children learn from the most. All these topics are connected to social learning – not just learning of instrumental behaviours, which are undoubtedly important for functioning in any environment – but also learning of various social categories and ways of thinking about them. This made me more and more interested in learning of social conventions. These behaviours dictate the established and proper ways of acting and as such they often require an individual to suspend their immediate individual interests or inclinations. This is where I realised that not only is learning of conventional behaviours a relatively unexplored area, but that it might also be connected to the ability to delay gratification. I started exploring these possible connections and was looking if there was a common underlying cognitive mechanism.

Moreover, social conventions is crucial for children to learn in order to become a competent member of a community, and children’s ability to delay gratification was proved to be an important predictor of improved social functioning, better academic performance and healthier relationships, and was found to be associated with higher levels of education and better abilities to cope with frustrations and stress. These facts only underlied the importance of researching the phenomena closer.

What should the average person take away from your study?

One important result of the study is that there were no significant differences between Western urban population and Melanesian island populations. This result shows that there are no differences in cognitive architecture of various cultures and that cognitive processes underlying our behaviours are the same and can be equally improved by using the same carefully designed interventions.

On a similar note, we must realise here that ritual is not just something exotic, something only performed in remote tribal cultures. Ritual is a very broad term includes conventional behaviours such as various norms, ideologies, proscriptions and prescription, or moral principles. By reproducing these behaviour in a socially accepted manner, there is a certain trade-off between an individual and a community. An individual must overcome his or her own immediate inclinations (waiting instead of skipping a line, wait to be given a word in a classroom instead of shouting out an answer, sharing one’s birthday cake with your family instead of keeping it for oneself, etc.) to receive acceptance from a social group, and a privilege to enjoy advantages of group membership and peer acceptance.

Although it is popular to consider fitting in to be slavish, unimaginative and conservative, it is important to realise that social conventions serve as a social glue. They bring us closer, support trust and help to make it possible to live in groups. Every parent wants his or her children to behave properly or politely, we expect newcomers to respect our “done” ways, and those who do not fit in are often ridiculed or even ostracised. Therefore, research on executive function and the ability to delay gratification is important not only for researching economic behaviour, but also in terms of researching how can individuals flourish within a social environment.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There are some aspects that still need to be addressed and could serve as future directions for research on executive function, conventional behaviours, and the ability to delay gratification. I will only name a few of them here.

First, it would be beneficial to examine long-term impacts of intervention, that is if and how long the benefits of intervention last, and in which domains and areas are the most effective. We also know little about optimal dose and duration of intervention sessions. Perhaps a longitudinal study that would allow examining consistency and development of the executive function and delay of gratification abilities would be helpful in developing programs that prevent impulsive behavioural tendencies which can develop into unhealthy or chronic lifestyle (overriding obesity, school drop outs, addictions, peer rejections, etc.).

Future research could also expand the presented design by closer examining utterance (normative, imperative, and descriptive) that children would use to describe and further transmit the activities in ritual vs. instrumental intervention group. This would help to clarify whether children understood the games in the ritual condition as normative, i.e. whether the ritual priming in fact activated norm learning in children. Given that various types of normative language have not yet been systematically investigated, this would be a particularly interesting research area.

Taking into account the results of previous research showing high correlations between the ability to delay gratification and schooling, future research should include children who do not attend the formal education to reveal wider effects and applicability of intervention sessions. Research on executive function is generally conducted in societies with formal schooling. Although the samples often include children from disadvantaged families and children from minority groups, we lack executive function research in societies where formal schooling is not a standard. This could be one of the future directions of executive function research, enabling to truly understand how diverse backgrounds influence its development and improvement. Although it was found that children with poor executive function benefit the most from receiving an intervention, an additional research would help to understand whether the benefit of interventions is greater in some culturally-specific contexts than others.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This research, among other conclusions, contributes to understanding how participating on social conventions contributes to improvement of cognitive abilities and behaviours that enable cultural novices (in this case children) to take better advantage of their social environment and make decisions that will benefit them in a long term. In a current political situation of high mobility it is important to realise that cultural novices are not just children, but also immigrants. Our research shows that group activities framed in conventional terms are beneficial for cultivating our executive function, persistence and patience.

Moreover, previous research demonstrated that individuals who are asked to perform tasks in groups where they must rely on their fellow participants to complete their assigned part of a task successfully typically perform better on the task, and there are aspects of ritual, such as costliness, dysphoric arousal, that appear to have the ability to increase social bonding between those who perform the ritual together. To sum up, in a globalising world where different religious and ethnic group increasingly interact, integration of newcomers into a community and their participation on social life and everyday activities (rather than segregation or assimilation attempts) can help to mediate various conflicts that often arise from misunderstandings and ascribing of stereotypes. My current research is focused on these issues and attempts to provide answers to one of our largest contemporary problem, social instability resulting from shifting demographics.

The study, “Rituals Improve Children’s Ability to Delay Gratification“, was also co-authored by Ryan McKay, Jonathan Jong, and Harvey Whitehouse.