According to Knottnerus (2005) “. . . daily life is normally characterized by an array of personal and social rituals. Such rituals help create stability to social life while expressing various symbolic meanings that give significance to our actions” (p. 8). Both positive and negative behaviors are part of daily life and when practiced often enough become ritualized. Individuals in recovery often report that certain “people, places, or things” can elicit behavioral responses without conscious awareness or intention. This reality underscores the need for the recovery process and programming to include an emphasis on individuals recognizing negative rituals and replacing them with positive (or prosocial) rituals.

We know from research that this behavioral change must be predicated on a change in attitudes/beliefs, an increase in knowledge regarding the behavior and associated consequences, as well as ample time to practice new behaviors within a structured and supportive environment. Changing ritualized behavior can be a difficult process and feel very foreign no matter how positive the results may be. Researchers, Van de Poel-Knottnerus and Knottnerus (2011), assert that “. . . when patterned, ritualized modes of behavior are severely disrupted, this is a very difficult and problematic situation for human beings” (p. 108). To this end, understanding how ritualized behavior forms, as well as how it can be effectively changed, is central to the work of treatment court practitioners and researchers. Understanding the specific mechanisms by which programs affect behavior change among various target populations, and sub-populations, is crucial to success and sustainability.

We hope the below-listed resources encourage you to take inventory of the ways in which your treatment court program facilitates and supports participants in their work to replace negative habits with positive ones. Also, we hope this information provides you with ideas as to how your program can work to do more in this area. While Dr. Clear’s work is not specific to treatment courts, the ideas are very much applicable to the behavior change process that is central to the treatment court model. The article by Drs. Lanier and DeVall applies Structural Ritualization Theory to adult treatment courts specifically.

Join us on NDCRC’s Beyond the Field discussion board for continued dialogue about how your program facilitates positive habit development among participants and/or ideas you have for doing so.

Creatures of Habit featuring Dr. James Clear on Making Sense with Sam Harris podcast (33 mins.)

Recommended Readings:

Lanier, C. & DeVall, K.E. (2017). How’d You Do It? Applying Structural Ritualization Theory to Drug Treatment Courts. Journal of Drug Issues, 47(2): 289-308. doi: 10.1177/0022042616687119

Atomic Habits by James Clear: Excerpt from chapter 3 https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change

Referenced Articles:

Knottnerus, J. D. (2005). The need for theory and the value of cooperation: Disruption and deritualization. Sociological Spectrum, 25, 5-19. doi:10.1080/027321790500130

Van de Poel-Knottnerus, F., & Knottnerus, J. D. (2011). Disruption and deritualization: Concentration camp internment and the breakdown of social order. In J. D. Knottnerus (Ed.), Ritual as a missing link: Sociology, structural ritualization theory and research (pp. 107-131). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Written by Dr. Kristen DeVall

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