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Author, reviewers, revision history: 

John C. Thomas, Draft – May 22, 2021 (Draft)


Rites. Observances. Routines. Habits. Sacrements. Ceremonies. Protocols. Programs. Practices.


Many groups, and not only religious groups, perform various rituals. Some are done periodically like daily prayers. Some are done on special occasions such as baptism, graduation ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, last rites, funerals, etc. Rituals appear to address many issues simultaneously. 


Rituals, so far as we can tell, are quite old. They seem to serve several purposes. It isn’t clear to me which of several purposes they were originally “designed” to solve.

Here are the problems they seem to touch on and offer partial solutions to:

  1. In many cases, it is necessary for groups of people to work in a coordinated fashion. If each person separately develops their habits for dealing with things, conflict and confusion can arise. How can the group behave without interfering with each other?
  2. Some rituals deal with major life changes. When Complex Adaptive Systems are faced with major changes, a whole host of individual changes and adaptations may be necessary to deal with the new circumstances. Too much change can induce exogenous depression. The person simply does not know what to do. Exogenous depression may be a coping mechanism to avoid making a catastrophically wrong decision before the person has had a chance to adapt to the new circumstances. However, in some cases, action must be taken before people have had a chance to let the implications of the new circumstances “sink in.” For instance, a death in the family has many implications. No-one knows quite what to do. Yet, something must be done. How can one behave when one is too depressed to think straight?
  3. In very small groups, such as the tribes we evolved in, everyone knew everyone personally. As groups grew larger and larger; in order to accomplish more ambitious tasks, for instance, it became difficult for people to recognize who was in their “in-group.” How can one recognize who is in one’s group when there are too many people to know personally? 
  4. People grow aware of their own mortality. How can one gain a sense of belonging to something that transcends the boundaries of their own bodies when their own bodies are limited in space and time?
  5. As groups grow larger and larger, there will be more and more diversity of abilities, capacities, styles, and so on. How can we keep track of what people are like?
  6. Human life is complex and so is the human behavior that attempts to deal with that complexity. Our behavior at time t is influenced by what happens before hand and especially what happens directly before a given activity. If it is important to perform something at time t precisely, it helps to preface the action with a series of actions right before the critical time t. This also “loads” working memory with the same material. 



  • Individuals naturally have somewhat different ways of doing things.
  • Having individuals do things in different ways means that some individuals will discover, invent, or happen upon ways of doing things that are superior. 
  • Group behaviors, to be most effective, require some degree of coordination. 

*  Some situations are so stressful and/or novel that people cannot make reasonable decisions.

*  Some situations require action in a timely fashion. 


Communities develop rituals over time. A community ritual may address any subset of at least five problems at once: 

  1. It provides a set of roles and procedures so that people may act together without interfering with each other.
  2. It provides people with a “plan of action” that they can follow in times of change without having to try to think it through individually. 
  3. A ritual provides a kind of behavioral “test” that shows whether someone is in our “tribe.” 
  4. A ritual, since it has many common elements over time and space, reminds us that we are part of a larger effort. 
  5. Precisely because rituals are to be done in a common way, they partial out those aspects of behavior which are due to circumstances and motivations from those that are due to abilities and inherent styles. 
  6. When someone seeks optimal performance of a complex behavior, it can help to preface the complex behavior with a series of preparatory behaviors that are performed in exactly the same way over and over. 


First, I present below some “porto-rituals” from my own life that I don’t claim are examples of what people generally think of as rituals, but which are behavioral “in that direction” which solve each of these subproblems.

  1. I do most of the food preparation for my wife and I. We mostly like the same things, which is handy. But sometimes, there are slight differences in preferences. For instance, I never add salt to my portions. In some things, my wife likes additional salt. Therefore, I alway prepare her drink or dish on the left and put mine on the right. This just avoids confusion. One might imagine however, that over generations such a heuristic could evolve into an actual ritual; e.g., women’s portions are on the left; men’s are on the right. 

  1. As I learned more and more psychology, it became more and more feasible to use what I learned in order to teach others or help others. But when? How much is enough? When do (or should) people “trust me” enough to take my advice? The ceremony, credentials, and rituals around getting a degree provide a handy shorthand that is generally though not universally accepted as showing that the point had been reached where my advice was “valuable enough” to receive credence (and reimbursement). This was much better, in my opinion, than having to decide every single day, “Should I stop learning and get a job today? No? How about tomorrow? How about the day after?” 
  2. One of the things that people in many academic communities do is review papers and grant proposals. In my experience, the reviewing process is partly influenced by reading signals about whether someone is in or not in the appropriate “tribe.” In a study of a new computer interaction technique, for instance, in my “tribe” it is not enough to simply claim that a new technique is superior. One is expected to show empirical evidence to that effect. If one does not do that, it detracts from the credibility of the claims. More than that, however, it signals to the reviewer that the author is not yet a full-fledged member of the community. 
  3. My mother was one of those people who always returned shopping carts to the store rather than leaving them in the parking lot. I do the same. I want to model good behavior for others, and avoid unneeded wreckage of carts and unneeded scrapes on the paint jobs on cars. But another motivation is that it reminds me of my mother. Since I am carrying on her tradition, it gives me a small feeling of continuity across generations.

    In a similar fashion, my grandmother told me stories that she made up herself. I create stories for my grandkids (as I did for my kids as well). Apart from other benefits, this gives me a feeling of being part of a tradition which I think is beneficial for me, for my descendants and for society. 

  1. I organize some tennis games for some of the local tennis players who are about my age and ability. In order to do this, I book courts and then send out email asking everyone on the distribution list whether they can play. Anyone who wants to play replies. Around 7 pm the evening before the upcoming tennis game, I let everyone know whether they are “in.” I’m not claiming it’s exactly a “ritual” but only that it’s a kind of “proto-ritual.” It has ritualistic elements. One of the people I play with — actually one of the very best players — cannot consistently perform this ritual. Sometimes, he shows up without informing me. Sometimes, he send three emails telling me he wants to play. Sometimes, he responds to an email from weeks prior. The fact that he is unable to perform the ritual shows a fair degree of impairment in working memory. If you simply observed him playing tennis, you might never know this. 
  2. In tennis serves, golf putts, baseball pitching, and many other athletic and non-athletic behaviors that require top performance, many people find it helpful to engage in a consistent series of overt behaviors and thoughts before the critical activity. Engaging in a preliminary ritual is not only a performance enhancer; it is also a learning enhancer. It essentially means that if you are trying some new “tweak” in your tennis serve, the way you putt (or trying a new putter) or trying a slightly different way to throw a knuckle ball, you are keeping every other variable as constant as possible. 

Resulting Context:



The earth revolves around the sun. If the the gravitational attraction between earth and sun were much less, the earth would fly off into space and soon all water would freeze and life would soon cease. If the gravitational attraction were much greater, the earth would soon spiral down into the sun and the planet would be incinerated. 

A society, group, team, or partnership must similarly have a balance between centripetal forces that tend to make it collapse into a singularity and centrifugal forces that tend to make it fly apart. Ritual can be seen as one of the centripetal forces that keep groups together. 

As an individual lives their life, they will typically do some things in a fairly creative and ever-changing manner and other things will become habitual and routinized. For example, there are several ways to tie shoes but most adults only use one way. Unless, as once happened to me, you break your arm, you need pay little conscious attention to shoe typing. Anything that gets the job done is sufficient.  

Related Patterns: 

Context-setting entrance. 

Meaningful initiation

Build from Common Ground

Known Uses:

Singing “Happy Birthday.” Playing the National Anthem before sporting events. Taking exactly two practice swings before a golf swing. Saying grace before a meal. Going out for a beer at a particular pub after every game. Reading the mission statement at the beginning of each “All-Hands meeting.” Reading the minutes of the previous business meeting at this business meeting. 




Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E., & Thomas, J. (2015). Fashion Thinking: Fashion Practices and Sustainable Interaction Design. International Journal of Design, 9(1), 53-66.

Schuler, D. (2008).  Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Social Change. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Thomas, J. C. (2017). Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World: A Pattern Language Approach. PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017, San Diego, CA.

Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.


What new rituals could be designed to remind people of their relationship to all life on earth and the impact of today’s actions on future generations? Could such rituals help remind people to “do the right thing”?

Are there existing rituals which could be used as is, or modified, for ecological purposes? 

An introduction to Pattern Language

Pattern Language Overview

An index of Patterns