Ritualizing As a Coping Strategy

Oct 06, 08 Ritualizing As a Coping Strategy

Ritualizing As a Coping Strategy

by Gelman, I.

A review of:
Boyer, P. & Lienard, P. (2008). Ritual Behavior in Obsessive and Normal Individuals. Moderating Anxiety and Reorganizing the Flow of Action. Psychological Science, (17) 4, 291-294.

Checking the door 200 times before bed, cleaning a table in counterclockwise circles, plugging and unplugging the toaster 24 times before leaving the house – these are all behaviors of obsessive-compulsive disorder. These various ritualized behaviors are characterized by compulsions (the person feels they must perform these actions), goal-demotion (no connection between goal and action), redundancy (actions repeated a certain number of times), and rigidity (actions must be accomplished in a certain sequence). In their article, Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienard, from University of Washington in St. Louis, write that OCD behaviors can be observed in nonclinical populations, especially children and cultural ceremonies. They go on to explain that the behaviors are probably linked to our inherent precaution system, which is necessary to detect potential danger and protect ourselves. In their article, Ritual Behavior in Obsessive and Normal Individuals. Moderating Anxiety and Reorganizing the Flow of Action, published in 2008, Boyer and Lienard explain their theory. They state that intrusive thoughts (and their responses) are not exclusive to OCD. Previous studies show that the pathological aspect of OCD behaviors stems from wrongly appraising threats in the environment and how much control one has over it. If one perceives himself to have little control, he is more likely to ritualize pathologically. Children engage in ritualized behaviors, with their rituals specifically linked to anxiety states, such as fear of strangers and risk of inflicting harm to self or someone else. On the other hand, cultural rituals are centered on collective ritualized behaviors that work because people believe in them, and people believe in them precisely because they are ritualized. Authors site several studies describing the fact that, from an evolutionary perspective, human beings need to be vigilant to ensure their survival. For example, higher attentional load of parents’ preoccupation about harm to the infant seems highly adaptive. However, it seems that OCD is a pathological exaggeration of normal functioning. Authors describe the difference between a nonclinical person performing an action and an OCD patient is that in the OCD individual, the action seems to be disconnected from the goal and focus shifts to the gestures. Boyer and Lienard contend that because ritualized behavior overloads working memory, it aides in thought-suppression. Theoretically, this could mean that people with OCD need to suppress, and the rituals serve as a tool to do so. The questions still remains, why does ritualized behavior result in thought suppression? Boyer and Lienard explain that further studies are needed to answer this question.

To cite this review, please use this reference:
Gelman, I. (2008). Ritualizing As a Coping Strategy, Psychology Alert (1).