Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (paywalled, no Sci-Hub mirror) describes a fascinating experimental outcome in which subjects were asked to enact "meaningless rituals" ("knocking the table with their knuckles, closing their eyes and counting, among other things") before being confronted with a self-control challenge (eating two carrots, then deciding between a third carrot and a chocolate truffle).
The researchers found that meaningless rituals created "feelings of self-discipline" that could be leveraged into actual self-discipline.
Like every person who ever lived, I struggle with self-discipline and wanting to do more of the things that make me feel better in the long term, even if it means doing less of things that are immediately gratifying (reading books vs reading Twitter, say). My life is full of little pointless rituals that seem to help with this, and this experiment provides some insight into what's going on there.
A fourth experiment assessed the effect of rituals in another self-control context—prosocial decision-making. Participants were asked to imagine that they had been invited to a friend’s party that would be a lot of fun. They were then informed that they had received an unexpected email from an affiliated charity organisation requesting their attendance that same evening at a public fundraiser. They must decide which event to go to, but before taking the decision, one group of the participants twice performed a series of ritual movements, while other groups either engaged in a one-off series of random gestures, or they took their decision immediately. The link between performing rituals and greater self-discipline was confirmed again with the ritual group showing a greater preference for the charity fundraiser.
A final experiment in the series demonstrated that rituals only affect decision making when a self-control conflict is involved (such as choosing between a fundraiser and party), not when choosing between two options where self-control is not an issue (such as choosing between two fun parties).
Enacting rituals to improve self-control [Tian, A. D., Schroeder, J., Häubl, G., Risen, J. L., Norton, M. I., & Gino, F./Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(6), 851-876]
Performing meaningless rituals boosts our self-control through making us feel more self-disciplined [Tomasz Witkowski/Research Digest]
(via Dan Hon)