The Ritual Effect

Stella Artois is an old beer with a long history. The original brewery (Den Hoorn) was founded in 1336 in Leuven, Belgium. In 1717, Sebastian Artois bought the brewery and promptly renamed it after himself.  The company has been brewing a pale lager ever since.

To celebrate this history, Stella Artois has developed a Nine Step Pouring Ritual. The first step is The Purification, in which the Stella branded chalice is given a cold water bath. Then comes The Sacrifice, as the bartender squanders the first few drops of beer to “ensure the freshest taste.” After that comes The Liquid Alchemy – “the chalice is held at 45 degrees for the perfect combination of foam and liquid” – and The Crown, whereby the chalice is straightened out. The final steps are a blur of movement: there is The Removal, The Beheading – the bartender trims the foam with a knife – The Judgment, The Cleansing and The Bestowal, in which the beer is presented on a clean coaster, with the logo facing outward. 

It’s a silly ceremony, made all the sillier by its Seriousness. And while Stella might like you to think that their pouring ritual is some medieval sacrament invented by trappist monks, it’s actually a fairly recent marketing ploy. (The ritual appears to have been first codified as part of the World Draught Master Competition in the late 1990s.) It’s also a remarkably successful gimmick, helping distinguish Stella from all the other fizzy, refreshing and tasteless beers on the supermarket shelf. According to the experts over at Beer Advocate, Stella is a worse beer than its corporate sibling, Budweiser. (Stella scores a 73, while Bud gets an 80.) And yet, Stella is typically 25 percent more expensive, both at bars and in stores. 

So why am I writing about this mediocre and "reassuringly expensive" beer? A recent paper in Psychological Science, led by Kathleen Vohs at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, begins to explain why rituals like the Nine Step Pour are so effective. When acted out, these rituals don’t merely enhance our perception of the brand. They enhance our perception of the beer.

Vohs and her colleagues (Yajin Wang, Francesca Gino and Michael Norton) conducted four separate experiments. In the first experiment, 52 students were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: ritual or no ritual. In the ritual condition, the students were given the following instructions: “Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it.” In the no ritual condition, students were merely given the candy, without any instructions.

As expected, those in the ritual condition enjoyed the chocolate more than those who simply consumed it. They spent more time “savoring” the candy bar, thought it was more flavorful, and were willing to pay about 75 percent more money for it.

In another experiment, Vohs and colleagues showed that the same logic could be applied to carrots. (This time the ritual consisted of rapping on the desk and taking deep breaths.) Once again, the differences were stark: those assigned to the ritual group reported higher levels of anticipated and experienced enjoyment.  

The last two studies attempted to explain why rituals enhance consumption. Vohs and colleagues showed that “personal involvement” is crucial – watching a stranger perform a ritual with lemonade didn’t make the drink taste better – and that rituals increase our “intrinsic interest” in whatever we’re eating.

This is a nice example of social science clarifying a cultural quirk. After all, rituals are everywhere, especially around food and drink. (There's grace before dinner, the Oreo cookie "twist, lick and dunk," a sommelier presenting the cork, a barista making a pour-over, etc.) Even when the steps themselves are meaningless, they give more meaning to whatever happens next.

Walter Benjamin famously argued that art began "in the service of a ritual," that its "aura" was "embedded" in a larger set of acts and ceremonies. The invention of mechanical reproduction changed all that, Benjamin wrote, "emancipating the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." This came with happy consequences - we could buy a Rothko poster for the bedroom - but it also stripped many products of their artisanal roots. Consider the beer shelf: the same multinational company makes Stella, Budweiser and Corona and they pretty much taste the same. 

I think Benjamin would be amused by the ways in which our age of mass production has returned us to ritual, as we seek to differentiate all these products that aren't very different at all. (Your favorite craft IPA probably doesn't need a nine-step pour.) These rituals pretend to have a function - Stella says it's about getting the fizz right - but they're really there to elevate the ordinary. For a few moments after The Bestowal, as we stare at that logo covered chalice handed to us by the bartender/brand ambassador, it's possible to believe that this generic beer actually has a twinge of aura.

Vohs, Kathleen D., et al. "Rituals enhance consumption." Psychological Science 24.9 (2013): 1714-1721.