How Practicing Simple Rituals Could Help You Stick to Your Goals


There are plenty of strategies people use to meet their goals, from writing in a planner to scheduling cheat days. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests a different tactic—building rituals around the behaviors you wish to adopt.

As study co-author Francesca Gino writes for Scientific American, following rituals, or symbolic actions repeated during certain events, can help us cope with grief and anxiety. To see if rituals also help people practice self-discipline, the researchers conducted an experiment with female undergraduate students. Each volunteer wanted to lose weight, and they were given different instructions to follow while trying to achieve their goal: The first group was told to be mindful of what they ate and the second group was told to follow a specific ritual before each meal. The pre-eating ritual involved cutting up food, arranging the pieces on their plate so they were perfectly symmetrical, and pressing down on the food with a utensil three times. Both groups were told to record their eating habits in a food diary.

At the end of five days, the participants who followed the ritual consumed on average 224 daily calories less than those in the control group. They also ate less fat and sugar during the week.

A separate study researchers conducted yielded similar results. Three groups of college students were invited into the lab where they were given food to "taste test." First, subjects were given two carrots, and then they were given the choice between sampling either a carrot or a chocolate truffle as their third item. The group that completed a complex ritual involving hand motions and deep-breathing before eating the first two carrots chose the carrot as their third option 58 percent of the time. The group that was asked to make random hand gestures instead chose the carrot 46 percent of the time, and subjects who weren't required to do anything at all chose the carrot 35 percent.

Gino concludes that performing rituals such as these might set us up to succeed. If a lack of self-control is the reason you struggle to eat more vegetables (or go to the gym, or open your textbook and study), then performing a low-stakes ritual beforehand, something that requires a bit of discipline, might trick your brain into thinking you are a strong-willed person.

Because most of the experiments in the study were related to eating healthy or eating less, it's hard to say if the strategy would work just as well with other types of goals. Plus, performing complicated and silly rituals might get tiring fast if you have trouble getting motivated in the first place. If you're looking for more ways to be productive, check out these tips from an expert.

[h/t Scientific American]

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.