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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For millions of Americans, tuning into "The Sopranos" was a ritual; the kind of appointment TV that's getting rare. Tony Soprano's world on screen was filled with rituals: the way mobsters spoke, the invocation of religion, even the way Tony Soprano worked and worked his plate of pasta with a fork. This next story explores the power of rituals on our senses, starting with a ritual that comes just before we cut the cake.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Happy Birthday to you.

INSKEEP: OK, and today we have a question: If you did not sing "Happy Birthday" or blow out the candles, would the cake taste any different.

NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to share new social science research. And it turns out someone has been testing this very question. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, did I hear your voice, by the way, on that "Happy Birthday" rendition just now?

VEDANTAM: You did, Steve. And I know your next question is going to be why I didn't pursue a career as a singer.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: And people have been asking me that all my life.

INSKEEP: Sinatra Vedantam, indeed. Indeed.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: OK, fine, fine, fine. But of course you're a better reporter than a singer. What's the research about?

VEDANTAM: So, anthropologists and writers and historians, Steve, have been exploring the idea of rituals for decades. But I was surprised to find there's actually very little quantitative research into the effects that rituals have on our lives.

INSKEEP: And when you say rituals, you mean like the "Happy Birthday" song, the cake being carried out, the candles being lit and blown out? The whole deal, all right.

VEDANTAM: Precisely. I recently came by some interesting work by Francesca Gino at the Harvard Business School, and along with Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang and Michael Norton, they've just completed the first rigorous quantitative study on the effects that rituals have on eating.

INSKEEP: OK. What did they find?

VEDANTAM: So they ran a series of experiments, in one of them, they give volunteers chocolate bars and they ask some of the volunteers to perform a ritual. Now without unwrapping the candy bar, they said break the candy bar in half, then unwrap one half, eat the candy, unwrap the other half, and then eat the other half of the candy.

INSKEEP: OK. Now you're going to tell me what the result is. But while you're doing that, I have this candy bar here that I'm going to work on.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So go on. Go on. Keep talking.

VEDANTAM: So they told the other volunteers to eat the candy bar exactly as they would like. And Francesca Gino told me there was a huge difference in the experience of people who had performed the ritual. Here she is.

FRANCESCA GINO: When people engage in rituals - very simple rituals - we see that, in fact, what they tasted was more flavorful, they savored it for longer and they would be willing to pay a higher price for what they just ate.

INSKEEP: Wow. That's fascinating, Shankar.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Excuse me. Let me swallow that. That's fascinating. But, you know, chocolate is good however you may eat it. I mean must people would think so, anyway. What about stuff that doesn't taste so good?

VEDANTAM: So they ran the same experiment with carrots, Steve, and they found the same thing happened. So across the board, 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.

So the researchers then said, is it possible it's just performing some kind of physical activity before you eat that makes the difference. So they had people perform these random physical gestures, and they found that didn't make the difference. They also found that watching someone else perform a ritual did not have any effect. You had to do it. You had to follow a very specific script. And it was doing the ritual every single time that gave the ritual its power.

INSKEEP: OK. This is fascinating, because, of course, we have rituals in all areas of life. People have morning habits. They have evening habits. There are habits of religion. We could go on and on. But let me ask about this. Can rituals go a little bit too far?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. You know, Francesca Gino told me that she has asked herself that same question. And recently, her husband asked her a question about her own rituals. Here she is again.

GINO: My husband looked at me the other day as I was making my morning coffee. And once again, I put the milk that was at a certain level, for 66 seconds in the microwave, and he asked me about it. And I said this is my morning ritual and I believe that it's making me having a better time when I drink my coffee. And he looked at me and said, why don't you describe it as OCD behavior?

VEDANTAM: So Steve, when she says OCD behavior, of course, she's talking about obsessive compulsive disorder and that's a very serious disabling disorder. And I guess the difference between a ritual and OCD is in the case of the disorder, you have the ritual taken to such an extent that it becomes disabling. So the question to ask really is: is the ritual helping you or is it hindering you?

In sports, for example, rituals soothe us, they calm us down. And Francesca Gino and Michael Norton have another study - which shows that after suffering a personal loss - performing a ritual helps you regain a sense of control. But, you know, the truth is there probably isn't much daylight between rituals and superstitions, it maybe that we call our superstitions rituals and we call the rituals of other people superstition.

INSKEEP: OK. Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about interesting social science research. He's going to host a Google hangout, by the way, a live video broadcast you can follow on your computer with Professor Francesca Gino today, noon, Eastern Time. You can watch it at npr.org/ritual.

Let me just finish this up. Mmm. It's great. I'm glad I broke it in half.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's a ritual that at this moment each day we say: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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