Scimex: A research team, including a New Zealander, has gained fresh insight into the characteristics of the ritualised behaviour. The scientists looked at the actions people took when cleaning, and found that increasing stress and anxiety led to more repetitive and predictable cleaning behaviour. They hope that the research will help to understand the ritualistic traits seen in religious ceremonies, gamblers, athletes, or people with conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism.
New research into the ritualised behaviour that follows when people
are anxious or stressed has provided fresh insight into the
characteristics of these actions, with the possibility of better
understanding conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and
The findings, co-authored by Victoria University of Wellington
postdoctoral researcher Dr John Shaver, have been published in the
prestigious academic journal Current Biology.
“It is widely believed that participating in rituals help people
regain a sense of control during times of uncertainty,” says Dr Shaver.
“We aimed to establish if there are common aspects to people’s
ritualised behaviour that are not learned or culturally defined, and
whether they appear spontaneously.”
The researchers established two groups of test participants, and
subjected each member of one group to a high-stress task; namely, the
preparation of a speech to be delivered to an art expert about a
Members of both groups were then asked to clean the sculpture, with
their hand-movements monitored using advanced motion-capture technology.
The researchers were looking for signs of ritualised or stereotypical
behavioural patterns, such as repetitiveness (recurrent cleaning),
rigidity (an emphasis on any aspect of cleaning), and redundancy (the
time spent cleaning, along with any unnecessary cleaning actions).
Supplementary data was also collected from the participants on their
perceived anxiety levels, as well as the difference in heart-rate
between their baseline level and the level during the cleaning task.
“We found that anxiety led to a statistically significant increase in
repetitiveness and rigidity, but not redundancy,” says Dr Shaver.
“We also found that repetitiveness and rigidity could be predicted
from both heart-rate and the participants’ self-perceived anxiety.
However, redundancy could be only mildly attributed to the latter.”
According to Dr Shaver, the findings appear to be in accordance with
other research which suggests that an individual experiencing anxiety
from a complex, uncontrollable or unpredictable task may enter a
high-entropy mental state—a kind of chaos in the mind stemming from
uncertainty about the future.
“Put simply, anxiety and stress lead to a decreased feeling of
control. To cope with this instability, ritualised behaviour is
enacted—repetitive and predictable actions that aim to increase the
feeling of environmental certainty.”
Some researchers have also argued that ritualised behaviours overload memory, thereby suppressing intrusive thoughts.
It is believed the research may go some way to help explain
more-complex ritualised behaviours, such as those performed by gamblers,
athletes, or participants of religious ceremonies.
Dr Shaver conducted the research in collaboration with Martin Lang
(University of Connecticut, United States), Jan Krátký (Masaryk
University, Czech Republic), Dr Danijela Jerotijević (Comenius
University, Czech Republic) and Dr Dimitris Xygalatas (University of