You Made Me What I Am Today

birthday cakeNational Public Radio’s science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, reported yesterday on some empirical research on the effects of people doing those patterned and repetitive, rule governed behaviors that we call rituals.

You can listen to the story here.

The punchline is that, according to researchers at the Harvard Business School (hardly the only place doing empirical, experimental research on ritual, of course), rituals like singing “Happy Birthday to You” and blowing out candles on the cake prompt people to report that, when they later eat it, the cake is more satisfying and tastes better (and that they’re even willing to pay more for it). As Vedantam sums up the findings: “Rituals seem to increase anticipation and make people more mindful of what they were eating. Performing a ritual before you eat a carrot apparently makes the carrot more tasty than it was before.”

The fascinating thing to me about this story in the popular media is just how much it cuts against the common sense view of identity, i.e., the supposed tastiness or worth of that carrot. For the research makes plain that the perception of the carrot’s flavor and its value are hardly intrinsic to the object and thus something that we just passively recognize but, instead, may very well be a product of our own prior social behaviors and the manner in which they establish a semantic context for the subsequent activity of, in this case, eating a carrot. What’s more, Vedantam ends the story with–at least when judged from how the popular press and common sense alike portray the distinction between such things as, say, innocence and guilt or us and them–the following, seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion:

“But, you know, the truth is there probably isn’t much daylight between rituals and superstitions; it may be that we call our superstitions ‘rituals’ and we call the rituals of other people ‘superstition’.”

This isn’t news, of course, since scholars have long known about the arbitrariness of identity and the self-beneficial manner in which we routinely ascribe value (e.g., mine is an antique but yours is just junk). But it is news to hear something on morning radio that isn’t all that far from Louis Althusser’s work on identity formation and his notion of interpellation–which gives new meaning to that old saying “you made me what I am today.” That the wider implications of such research on ritual passes by unnoticed, or at least unexplored in this NPR report, is, of course, probably not all that surprising. After all, there’s lots riding on presuming that some people just are bad guys and that gold is obviously a good investment.

2 Replies to “You Made Me What I Am Today”

  1. Very relevant link–quoting it:

    “But, there was a catch. The participants weren’t really tasting five wines; they were tasting three, with two of the wines being tasted twice, labeled at different prices. For example, Wine 2 was presented as the $90 wine and as the $10 wine. So how did that affect people s enjoyment of the wine? As the $90 wine, they loved it; as the $10 wine, not so much.”

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