An ancient trick to calm your mind

Behavioral design in the form of tiny dolls

Worry dolls, also known as trouble dolls, are tiny hand-crafted dolls that originated from Guatemala. According to local legend, they have the power to take away trouble by worrying for you while you sleep.

My mom gave me a box of worry dolls when I was a little girl. There are different variations of how to “use” them, but the approach I learned was to tell one worry to each doll before going to sleep and place them under my pillow. I don’t remember if I used them often, but the legend stuck with me.

A few years ago I uncovered them again, and I wondered if this childhood ritual could help me with my grown-up problems. So during a particularly stressful time in my life, I shared my worries with the dolls at night before bed. And the crazy thing was — it worked! I actually felt better and was able to fall asleep faster.

Priming: the science behind the magic

As I learned about behavioral science, I was struck by the power of priming to change our mindsets. You can get a great overview in this illuminating talk by Dan Ariely, but to summarize: When dealing with a complex situation, we rely on cues from our environment to give us context, even if those cues are don’t give us any new information about the situation we’re facing.

As an example, Ariely talks through an experiment in which two groups of people were asked how much they love their significant other. Before they answered, the researchers primed the participants. They asked Group A to name 3 reasons why they love their partner, while Group B was asked to name 12 reasons. Group B ended up giving lower love ratings for their partners. Why? It turns out that it’s quite hard to come up with 12 reasons, so they figured that they don’t love their partner all that much.

I realized that’s what was happening with the worry dolls. I have 12 worry dolls, and it’s quite hard to come up with 12 worries. The first 5 or so were always pretty easy, but then I would end up struggling to come up with other things to worry about. The last few dolls would end up hearing generic worries about things like world peace, the health of everyone on the planet, and climate change. At that point, things fall into perspective, and my mind feels more at ease. If I can’t come up with 12 things to worry about in my life, it must be that things aren’t so bad after all.

So, now that I know the behavioral mechanism behind the worry dolls, do they still work? I haven’t used my worry dolls in a while. But I think I’ll keep them around, just in case.