Difference between normal and pathological rituals

Difference between normal and pathological rituals

By Liz Lockhart

Many top athletes have rituals which they perform prior to competing.  It is not uncommon to see sportsmen ‘cross’ themselves prior to a mach, rugby players throw a few blades of grass in the air to see which way the wind is blowing prior to attempting a try.  I have seen this done in indoor arenas where there is no wind but it is still adopted as a ritual almost as a ‘safeguard’ or superstitions.  Actors and singers adopt similar ritualistic behaviours prior to going on stage.

These actions share a behavioural link with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in as much as they act to reduce stress, according to a new study.

The study researchers discovered that repetitive behaviour in general, especially ritualistic-like behaviour, is not only a human phenomenon but also one that is shared by the animal world.  Researchers believe that the ritualistic behaviour in both humans and animals evolved as a way to create calm and to relieve stress.

This ritualistic action puts some element of control back into the hands of the individual.  This increased confidence and self-assurance in situations that would otherwise be out of our control.

The research is published in the journal of Neuroscience and Bio-behavioural Reviews.

Zoologist, Dr. David Eilam says that every human and animal activity can be divided into three parts, ‘preparatory’, functional’ and ‘confirmatory.   The functional aspect is defined by the specific actions that must occur in order to complete a task.

The ‘preparatory’ and ‘confirmatory’ actions were dubbed as ‘head’ and ‘tail’ actions by the researchers.  These are not strictly required in order to get the job done.  We complete them both before and after the central task but they are not necessarily related to it.  Individuals complete different head and tail activities for every task.

Both Dr. Eilam and his fellow researchers watched and analysed video tapes of people completing ordinary tasks, such as putting on a shirt, locking a car, or making coffee.  They also observed basketball players completing a free-throw.  Commonly a basketball player will bounce the ball for a specific number of times prior to shooting it.

Basketball behaviour is a good example of ritualistic behaviour, says Eilam.  Why bounce the ball precisely six times before a shot when all a player actually has to do is to shoot the ball?

Eilam says ‘The routine they perform in the moments before shooting the ball is a method to focus their full concentration and control their actions.’

If players feel that completing their repetitive actions will enhance their performance, they tend to be more successful.  It is considered to be an essential part of sports psychology.

Eilam says that these idiosyncrasies are individual to each person.  He notes that rituals are like fingerprints in that they are unique to each individual.

The researchers suggest that even among daily functional tasks, head and tail activities can be easily differentiated.  They are, however, exaggerated in people who suffer with OCD who may check an recheck whether the stove has been turned off, for example.

OCD sufferers were seen to engage in more ‘tail’ activity than basketball players, ho displayed more ‘head’ activity, said Eilam.

Individuals with OCD suffer from a feeling of incompleteness, they are unsure whether or not their task has been completed, and compulsive behaviour is driven by a need to verify the action.

A free throw in basketball has a distinct cue, throwing the ball, that signals the end of the action, whereas, with OCD, a common compulsive behaviour, such as washing one’s hands, might not have a clear ending.  There is no external sign to say they are ‘absolutely clean’.  According to Eilam, this is the key difference between normal and pathological rituals.

Source: Tel Aviv University 

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