Apr 22 2010

The Layer of Unnecessary Ritual

Fans of Bruce Lee are likely familiar with Jeet Kune Do, the style of fighting he developed in the 1960s. Lee felt there was too much wasted motion in most martial arts styles – there was a layer of ritualized and superfluous movements built up over the years. So he set out to strip away all the ritual and reduce martial arts technique to the minimal core movements that conveyed optimal function. The result was Jeet Kune Do.

It seems humans have a tendency to clog systems with ritual and fluff. In the cognitive sciences this fluff is often treated as “theory” and when interventions based upon the theory seem to work, proponents interpret this as validating the theory.

But in order to know that the theory is truly valid, variables need to be controlled to skeptically ask the question – is it the elements unique to the theory that are working, or the more basic elements of the intervention? For example, with eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapists basically ask clients to ponder their fear or anxiety while they follow an object with their eyes back and forth. Proponents claim the eye movements affect the brain’s hardwiring, but they ignore the more basic elements of the intervention. First, there is the most basic and non-specific effect of introducing a novel technique into a therapeutic relationship – whenever you do anything new with a client, there will be a non-specific effect. Second, there may be an element of cognitive therapy involved. If you control for these variables, do the eye movements themselves add anything to the effectiveness of treatment? Probably not.

This basic concept of unnecessary ritual came up during an interesting conversation I had with Jamy Ian Swiss back stage at NECSS. It turns out he has experience working with wolves (who knew) and we were talking about an audience question about the dog whisperer. There are various competing theories within the world of dog training – Jamy brought up pack theory, which emphasizes the role of hierarchy in a pack of wolves and deals with issue like dominance and being the alpha male. Alternatively, we can view dogs as perpetual puppies (much of the evolution of dogs from wolves constituted neoteny, the maintenance of juvenile characteristics into adulthood). According to the neoteny approach, puppies should be treated like children who need parenting and approval.

So should we treat dogs like members of the pack or like children who need parenting? Does it matter? It probably does, in that an owner’s relationship to their dog will vary according to which theory they are following. But does one approach work better than the other? It seems that both approaches work sometimes and not others, but the real question is – when they do “work” what is it that is actually working? Regardless of theory, anytime you try to affect the behavior of an animal through a combination of reward and punishment you are using some form of conditioning (whether classical or operant).  Therefore any claim that a theory of dog whispering is effective must first separate out the variables that are unique to the theory from those that are general to conditioning.

To give yet another example, I think dieting for weight loss also fits into this category of the unnecessary ritual. The evidence strongly suggests that all diets work (when they do) by reducing caloric intake – period. Everything else is the unnecessary ritual that derives from the dubious fluff “theory” that is used to market the diet. There are techniques that genuinely help people to control their caloric intake, like tracking their food intake and meal replacements, but theories about low carb, low fat, avoiding or eating specific foods, eating at times of day, etc. are all irrelevant variables.


The basic lesson from these examples is that there appears to be a tendency to burden theories and practices with unnecessary fluff. People are natural theorizers – we like to think we understand the underlying reason that things work the way they do. But we are not intuitive scientists or skeptics, that part has to be learned and requires vigilance and rigor. The result is that when we come up with a theory, or absorb one from the culture, confirmation bias is likely to convince us that the theory “works” (we will seek out, notice, and remember anything that seems to confirm the theory, and dismiss anything that contradicts it as the exception that proves the rule).

This process of confirmation bias leads to the ratcheting up of unnecessary ritual, like sports stars who develop an increasingly elaborate ritual of superstition they must go through before every game. Every time we try out a new element, it seems to work, so we add it.

Every now and then we need to clean house – to ask the scientific questions about which variables are actually working, and which ones are just illusion, and then strip away all the ritual and nonsense.

In other words, we could do worse than to listen to the wisdom of Bruce Lee. We need a Jeet Kune Do of counseling and dog whispering, and any other system weighed down by ritualized and superfluous movements.

23 responses so far

23 thoughts on “The Layer of Unnecessary Ritual”

  1. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Stripped of nonsense, acupuncture can be taught in about an hour and the final exam conducted on the back of a postcard. Better yet, dispense with acupuncture altogether. Right?

  2. mindme says:

    ||It seems humans have a tendency to clog systems with ritual and fluff. ||

    There’s that old comedian joke about why do people always ask “would you happen to have the correct time?” Like I enjoy setting my watch to a random time?

    Teaching English in Korea I noticed the Korean language can alter levels of politeness by changing the ending on the verb. Same verb but you, in a sense, conjugate it with some more words and then BAM it becomes very polite. In English we can’t take a verb like “give me” and add a string of characters on the end and make a demand into a polite request but keeping the same verb. I realized we have to play with other parts of the sentence, making it more wordy. More wordy = more polite.

    It might have something to do with judging the intentions of an attacker. An attacker wants to attack quickly. He does not want to give you a lot of time to prepare a defense, run away, etc. So more time we give people to judge our intentions, either through a long ritual, or just being very verbose in a request for some action that might not have survival benefit to the stranger, the less hostile it makes us appear.

  3. JSR says:

    Not to be too off-topic, but I’d love to hear some more skeptical takes on dog training and interaction. Recently, I was fascinated that some otherwise logical people have a hard time accepting that dogs do not think like humans.

    For instance, thinking their dog feels ‘guilty’. In every case of dog ‘guilt’ I’ve observed, it’s been the dog reacting in fear/submission to an owner’s voice and/or body language. And ‘revenge peeing’ which tends to toss out tons of simple explanations, like poor house training, a disrupted schedule, or other environmental changes.

  4. locutusbrg says:

    I do not know that I agree with some parts of your weight loss analogy. I will try to be clear, weight control is related to a calorie surplus or deficit only. Despite tons of psuedoscience to the contrary, there is not one food that is more of an issue for weight loss than any other. IE Morgan Spurlock’s McD’s fiasco. If you eat a 5000-7000 calorie a day diet, be it spinach, or milkshakes you are going to gain weight and feel lousy. It is just a lot harder to eat 7000 cals of spinach and keep it down. All diets have a poor 3 year success rate because how we eat is mostly behavioral (in the united states). By behavioral I mean out of control calorie intake.
    I think there is some relevant research that suggests that exposure in children may be improtant. Behaviorally related associations with high fat foods and overweight children. Pediatrics 2004. There is some evidence that attitudes about food specifically calorie dense food may produce higher risk for adult/childhood obesity. The traditional nature nurture question.
    My opinion is that high fat calorie dense diets promote obesity and may be a partially learned experience. Avoid calorie dense exposures in children are probably a benefit for long term dietary practice. I know this was not really the target of your one paragraph expression of useless variables. There is some support for this directly and it is supported by the majority of overarching obesity research.

  5. sfern says:

    I thought he was addressing weight-loss and diets.

    Radically different diets, with calories held equal, tend to produce similar results. Thats the kind of thing you can test.

    Figuring out how any particular food figures in to the bigger picture of obesity and related disease is another kettle of fish.

  6. CivilUnrest says:

    locutusbrg, I’m pretty sure you and Dr. Novella are in agreement…

  7. BillyJoe7 says:

    Or probably more an extension of what he said:
    Steven Novella: to reduce weight reduce calories
    Lotusbrg: to reduce calories reduce energy dense foods.


    “For instance, thinking their dog feels ‘guilty’. In every case of dog ‘guilt’ I’ve observed, it’s been the dog reacting in fear/submission to an owner’s voice and/or body language.”

    We have two dogs. One is very sensitive and the other is not. If you find the sensitive one with her body wriggling, her tail pulled in, and avoiding eye contact you can be pretty sure that your favourite plant has been dug up. But the other one can dig up your whole damn garden and act as if nothing has happened.

  8. bindle says:

    Dogs learn to expect punishment. Some learn that the crime is worth the effort. Some of those learn to lie about who did it.

  9. cloudskimmer says:

    As far as weight loss is concerned, I’d add that to lose weight, calories could remain the same as long as calories burned increase; exercise more and lose weight (plus gain all the other benefits–strength, balance, cardiovascular fitness, bone density, etc.).

    Our dog, after being left in a kennel for a week when the family went on vacation, would always, within a week of our return, do one bad think, like pooping on the sofa. He was perfectly housebroken all the time, except that one time, and it could be three or four days after we got back, so the routine was re-established. We thought it was to get back at us for leaving him in a place he didn’t like.

    Why is it so difficult to believe that animals have emotions/feelings, and can reason and think? Behavior is a product of evolution; humans have it; why not animals?

    JSR, what you need is to observe the dog’s behavior with the owner not reacting to the bad behavior. I wonder how a controlled experiment could be conducted to find out if dogs feel badly when they misbehave. For that matter, how can you tell if people feel bad when they misbehave, or if they are just responding to the behavior of those around them? Do criminals feel badly about what they did, or because they got caught?

  10. joshofbass says:

    Going from *old* memory and a bit of knowledge…
    Bruce Lee got the idea of removing unnecessary motion from Wing Chun, the martial art he studied in his youth. Jeet Kun Do added the idea that you could use any style/technique as long as it suited your wants/needs/situation/ability.

    or something like that..

  11. Lucian says:

    I think it’s our pattern-recognizing brain that leads to these “Unnecessary Rituals.” It’s an innate quality of many animals besides ourselves. The problem, as Dr. Novella points out, is when we observe a false positive and create a superstitious belief or behavior.
    I’m reminded of the study by B.F. Skinner that was able to induce superstitious behavior in pigeons. It was done in an adapted Skinner Box, instead of an action which gives a reward, a reward is just given at random. The pigeons subsequently developed unusual behaviors which they had presumably percieved as what had triggered the reward.
    I’m a relatively inexperienced skeptic and it’s a good reminder to how easily we learn and draw incomplete conclusions. Dr. Novella is right when he says it takes vigilance and rigor to keep the filters up and hone our scientific thinking and behavior.

  12. KeithJM says:

    This reminds me of the Pacific cargo cults after World War II. After the Japanese and American/European forces cleared out of the pacific, some Pacific islanders built their own symbolic runways and even fake control towers to try to draw whatever magical force that had been bringing food and supplies to their island to come back again. They didn’t know what these structures were supposed to do, but they’d seen that when the Americans built them, chocolate arrived.

    Dr. Novella is just describing people who are 3/4 of the way to a pure cargo cult — they don’t know which pieces are cult and which pieces actually matter, so they don’t feel comfortable editing the process.

    On weight loss in particular, I think ritual can add something mentally, much like tracking calories that Dr. Novella mentions. Making yourself exercise at the same time each day can increase your overall exercise, because it means in some sense you have to make a conscious decision NOT to exercise. Refusing to eat after a certain time can make sense too, if you find you tend to snack and eat empty unneeded calories in the evenings.

    It’s still the number of calories burned and ingested that ultimately matter, but the real challenge around those numbers is changing people’s habits, not doing the math.

  13. Calli Arcale says:

    I think ritual is more than just our learning process getting misdirected by false positives. One of the better studied examples is sleep rituals. Nearly everyone develops a sleep ritual, and disruption of it tends to make it harder to go to sleep. This is why sleep counselors will recommend training yourself to a ritual that is flexible and will work whether you are at home or away. The reasoning is that the ritual actually does work, because it tells us subconsciously that it’s time to go to sleep.

    Rituals can also help a person prepare mentally to work. One of my old ones is listening to my entire Alan Parsons collection, in order, on earphones. While I’m doing that, I shut out all other distractions. I developed it in college for writing term papers and such, but it works for me in the business world as well. Great for clearing the mind at crunch time. It works not because of anything inherent in the rituals themselves, but because I have trained myself to respond a certain way to the rituals.

    Routine itself is a ritual; this is why it’s easier to be on a routine than to try to optimize every day for efficiency. Even if parts of the routine are useless, you’re used to them, and so when you encounter them, you know what’s coming next and don’t have to think too hard about it.

    I guess ritual is sort of like language. The meaning and effect of the rituals is entirely manufactured, but that doesn’t mean it’s illusory — for good or ill. Bad habits can be formed as easily as good ones.

  14. mcygnet says:

    || Mindme said: More wordy = more polite. ||

    Great insight, Mindme. A layer of unnecessary verbal ritual probably also explains why we are intrigued by certain types of flowery speech, such as nonsensical music lyrics or poetry. We can’t help but imagine those mysterious words must cloak some inner truth. Poets do this intentionally, of course, as Khalil Gibran said, “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.”

    I think our attraction to verbal ambiguities involves the mind’s natural desire for cognitive closure. When we hear certain types of flowery nonsense, our minds work that much harder to resolve the ambiguity. In science, of course, as Steve points out, beware of attributing too much value to the flowery nonsense.

  15. Calli Arcale says:

    Poetry is an interesting thing to study — humor perhaps even more so. Why do we enjoy puns so much, for instance? That’s part of that verbal ambiguity.

    It’s not so much that half of a poem is meaningless as that the purpose of it may be something other than the direct meaning — especially if the intended meaning is not something easily expressed. The poem may be about an experience, and in that case, the purpose of the words is not so much to tell you something as to cause you to feel a particular way.

    Edgar Allen Poe had this to say on the subject:
    A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.

    All parts of a poem must be important; they may not have obvious meaning, or their obvious meaning may not be the correct one, but they must have a *purpose* or they should not be there. As Antoine de St-Exupery said (though he was talking more about engineering), perfection is acheived not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away

    And then, of course, there is Chekhov’s Gun. It might not seem important to the story when you see it, but if the writer is very shrewd and very careful, it will be important later.

    This relates to ritual, in that sometimes what we do has a meaning that is different from the obvious one. This doesn’t make it less significant, in and of itself. It’s important to know the difference, though, lest one mislead oneself. And just as poetry can be misconstrued, so can ritual. We can start to believe that the ritual causes an event to happen, rather than simply helping us get in the right mindset, or just being fun.

  16. Calli Arcale says:

    BTW, for those not interested in wading through Poe’s elaborate early 19th Century language, what he’s basically saying is that what makes poetry special is that it conveys sensations that regular prose just can’t. (I dispute that, personally, and would use many of his prose works as examples to the contrary.) He also talks about music being the thing which sets poetry apart from prose — poetry has music, which is what lets him convey those “indefinite sensations”. That’s also the meaningless half that Gibran is talking about.

    Music is something that seems to be even deeper in us than puns and wordplay, and it’s something that we share with a surprising number of animals. We are inclined to detect rhythms and cadences, and to expect them to have meaning.

    Interestingly, a great many rituals involve music and rhythm, whether its a chanted liturgy, the Star Spangled Banner before a game, or someone singing “rock-a-bye baby” to their child.

  17. trrll says:

    I remember hearing a lecture some years ago from a scientist (sadly, I forget who) who systematically studied the phenomenon of “chicken hypnotism” whereby a chicken could be “hypnotized” by holding it down and drawing a line in front of its beak. He found that the technique worked as claimed, but drawing the line was unnecessary ritual–the key element was holding the chicken down.

    I’ve often been amused that scientists who are very careful in the interpretation of their experimental results can become remarkably superstitious in their methodology, particularly when dealing with experimental preparations such as cell cultures or live animals that sometimes “fail” for no discernable reason. A failed experiment is so aversive (and why it failed is usually not what you want to spend your time studying) that you can often end up always doing whatever you did when it seemed to work, just to be safe.

  18. johnc says:

    Taking out the unnecessary ritual only works if you understand which parts are unnecessary, and for what purpose, and have a pressing need to simplify.

    Bruce Lee wanted a perfect and simple fighting system, which is not the same as a martial art. At. All..

    Try doing the same thing to Tai Chi, for example, and you won’t have anything left, because the purpose of Tai Chi is not fighting, but self control and self awareness realised in the very movements themselves. The same movements help circulation and regulate blood pressure, as well as calm the mind.

    We can do the same to dancing, sex, relationships, art and basically kill them off. Something that the new breed of semi-autistic but not actually very clever skeptic movement would probably relish.

    Hint: Unnecessary does not equal wrong.

  19. BillyJoe7 says:


    “Unnecessary does not equal wrong.”

    If more a matter of finding out what is necessary and what is unnecessary for your intended purpose.

    Bruce Lee wanted to produce the optimal fighting system within Karate. The ritual of Karate was unnecessary for this purpose so he eliminated it.

    Tai Chi is not a fighting system, it is a system for calming the mind. So, to optimise Tai Chi for calming the mind you would remove all parts of the ritual that do not calm the mind.

    If you think sex is purely for procreation you would remove all the bits that are not geared towards procreation. It you think it’s for fun, you would remove all those bits that are not fun.

    “Something that the new breed of semi-autistic but not actually very clever skeptic movement would probably relish.”


  20. Steve – Interesting to see a blog post grew out of your *Dog Whisperer Moment* at NECSS.

    And # johnc, speaking of unnecessary ritual, your claims for tai chi (self control and self awareness realised in the very movements themselves. The same movements help circulation and regulate blood pressure, as well as calm the mind) apply pretty much to all forms of exercise. I have been an avid cyclist, and these claims could just as easily be made for cycling as any *eastern* discipline.

  21. SteveA says:

    A ‘martial art’ is not a ‘fighting system’?

    Perhaps JohnC ought to look up ‘martial’ in a dictionary. Go. On…

  22. MaryP says:

    Uh, my understanding is that Tai Chi started as a martial art. I certainly study it as a martial art and base each movement on a strike or a block. I believe Toaist Tai Chi has gone in a different direction. My instruction always emphasis that “the form” does not matter. It is a mechanism for practising all the moves which can be done in any order.

    Ritual helps me remember things but by knowing what is actually necessary can allow me to adapt ritual to work better for me.

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