The Psychology of Rituals: Why We Go Crazy for Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Every fall, Starbucks starts selling pumpkin spice lattes (PSL) and the Internet loses its mind. Instagram is flooded with pictures of PSLs as its fans go wild.

It’s reached the point that Starbucks actually releases it in late August, which is a full month before the official start of Autumn.

If you’re a fan of beer, you see the same phenomenon with pumpkin-flavored beers. Once September rolls around, the stores are filled with seasonal beers all juiced with pumpkins.

Personally I’m not a fan but I see the appeal – it’s welcoming the cooler weather, the start of many family celebrations, and it’s simply fun.

For many, it’s also a ritual. And rituals are important for our money.

Table of Contents
  1. Rituals Enhance Enjoyment & Value
  2. Rituals Are Special and Limited
  3. Add Rituals to the Routine
  4. But Don’t Turn Rituals Into Routine

Rituals Enhance Enjoyment & Value

Rituals are important for a variety of reasons but where it intersects with your money is clear – rituals enhance the perceived value of the experience.

Kathleen Vohs and Yajin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota, along with Francesa Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, conducted a series of studies looking at how ritual changed the experience of consuming a variety of foods.

In one study, participants tasted chocolate, either ritualistically (i.e., with the instruction to break the bar in half without unwrapping it, unwrap half the bar and eat it, and then unwrap the other half and eat it), or as they normally would.

Those who performed the ritual reported finding the chocolate more flavorful and enjoying it more.  They also took more time to savor it, and were willing to pay nearly twice as much for more of it.

For Starbucks, the release of PSLs means they can sell more coffee at a higher price because customers have a ritual around it and its release. But for customers, the existence of a ritual means they’re enjoying that cup of coffee even more.

Lattes are often lambasted for their cost and how they derail retirements (thanks a lot “latte factor”). While I think that’s way overblown, I believe you should maximize the enjoyment of every dollar you spend.

You can integrate rituals around anything to increase its enjoyment. With the pieces of chocolate, they didn’t don a special robe or light a candle. Participants simply had to add a few extra “meaningless” steps.

If you watch people drink their first PSLs, they just smell it a little longer and savor each sip a little bit more.

Rituals Are Special and Limited

The other thing that separates rituals from the everyday is that they are special and less frequent. Your birthday happens just once each year. Hannukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa happen just once a year.

The McDonald’s McRib and the Starbucks PSL are limited releases and not available all year.

By making them limited, you increase scarcity and that increases perceived value.

The flip side of this is that when you take something special and make it routine, it loses its value.

We know friends who have dessert after every meal. It’s nothing huge. Sometimes it’s a piece of chocolate or maybe a small bowl of ice cream. For them, it’s a signal that the meal is over.

We rarely have dessert. So when we do, such as cake for birthdays or at special get togethers, it’s a real treat for our kids. Our friends’ kids don’t get that spike of joy because for them, dessert is routine.

For desserts, there’s no right or wrong way, just whatever your family does. But you can see how this can percolate into other areas of your life.

It’s like the hedonic treadmill. After a major positive experience, we tend to go back to our baseline level of happiness. Your baseline is your routine and if your baseline is having dessert after dinner, getting a dessert after dinner isn’t special.

Add Rituals to the Routine

Every night, we don’t turn on the bathroom lights while we brush our teeth and shower. We light a series of candles in our bathroom. Our goal is to reduce how much light we see at night to help us fall asleep easier. (this post about light and sleep on Huberman Lab is great)

It’s become a bit of a small ritual before bed.

It’s calming and relaxing. And all it takes is a couple candles.

And I’m usually asleep in a few minutes after lying down. It’s fantastic.

But Don’t Turn Rituals Into Routine

The takeaway from this is that rituals are important because they increase our perception of value and enjoyment. And perception is reality, so rituals are a great thing, not something to scoff at.

So when you see the pictures of people savoring their PSLs, know that they’re getting more value out of each sip and that’s good.

The flip side is that you shouldn’t turn rituals into routines. Don’t take something that is “special” and overdo it because it’ll stop being a ritual.

As for me, I’ll pass on the pumpkin beers but I can’t wait for those family celebrations!

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