Why We Love Traditions, According To Science

by JR Thorpe

It doesn't matter what holiday we're discussing — traditions and rituals are a seriously important part of it. There are different levels, of course: some traditions are the same around the world, like Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles; while others are family-specific, like your dad getting drunk off eggnog and treating everybody to an elaborate karaoke set of Dean Martin hits every Christmas Eve. But it's not just the festive feeling of the season that makes us wild for traditions; they're actually a dominant part of most societies.

Think about it — traditions have taken center stage in all civilizations, from the harvest celebrations in the ancient Aztec empire to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. So why do we love traditions so much? What is it about repeating the same rituals year after year that gives us that warm and fuzzy feeling?

Psychology has a few very interesting answers. One of them, of course, is that humans love predictability and stability; we love it so much that up to 93 percent of all our actions can be predicted ahead of time, according to a 2010 study from Northwestern. The like-clockwork stability of certain bits of life are, according to psychology, really necessary for our development and feelings of wellbeing; a little bit of routine can be a good thing, particularly when we're children and teens. Instability can really upend a kid's future life.

The reasons are more complex that just our passion for stability, though. We love tradition because of who we are as a species and how we've evolved to survive trouble; and because of this, traditions have to include a set of certain ingredients to lodge themselves firmly in our heads and societies. So read on, and let psychology tell you why you really, really love gingerbread, caroling, and popping popcorn over an open fire with your siblings (even though it almost always ends up smelling terrible).

1. We Follow Traditions Because We Copy People For Safety

Human traditions exist, it turns out, largely due to our fear and a determination to do what other people are doing. According to a series of experiments on traditions and imitation conducted in 2015 by the Emotion Lab in Sweden, we're far more likely to obey a tradition (that is, something we observe other people doing) if our choices come with a threat of punishment. We don't follow all traditions just because we enjoy them; subconsciously, we may follow them because we're afraid.

The set of experiments asked participants to choose between two pictures, A and B, on a screen. Participants were then shown a video of someone who picked picture A every time. If participants were told they'd receive an electric shock if they picked the "wrong" picture, they followed exactly what the person on the video did; but if they were only told they'd be rewarded if they picked the "right" picture, or that nothing would happen either way, they were a lot less likely to follow the example.

The psychologists behind this experiment think it means that two potent ingredients must combine in order to make a tradition stick: our tendency to copy other people (which is a strong part of human psychology) and our desire to avoid danger. Humans are innate copiers; we even have "mirror neurons" in our brains to help us ape the movements and speech patterns of those around us. But it seems we're much more likely to stick to copying over generations if we're copying something that is going to keep us out of trouble. So yes, at some point in time, Christmas trees must have protected some of our ancestors from danger.

2. Powerful Traditions Have A Set Of Recognized Elements

There are, it turns out, four key elements to any tradition or ritual that retains its hold over years — whether it exists just within your family, or is a part of a wider community. These ingredients are: 1. a strictly defined time and place; 2. a set of features that are repeated year after year; 3. another set of features that are different from year to year; and 4. a lot of symbols. Think of Christmas: it's always on December 25, its traditions regarding food and present-giving are pretty set in stone — but every year new elements, like family members or guests, can or be introduced; and it's packed full of symbols, from the tree to the flaming pudding.

It's also psychologically important for the event to contain a lot of sensory information. We tie a huge amount of meaning to memories of sensory information, which is why a whiff of perfume can make you remember a grandmother you barely even met. Traditions that incorporate serious sensory stimulation, from smells to tastes to sounds, are likely to be incredibly powerful psychologically, and to have a lot of significance for us. That roasting-chestnuts smell isn't just for the hell of it.

3. Parents With Fun Memories Of Traditions Have Mentally Healthier Children

If your parents absolutely adored the rituals of Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice or whatever they celebrated when they were children, chances are high that you yourself have had more positive interactions with those traditions, and are mentally more stable as a result. According to 2003 research published in Monographs For The Society Of Childhood Development, there's a strong link between parents with positive ideas about traditions and rituals, and how much fun they have with their kids.

It turns out that having enjoyed a happy set of childhood traditions may make your parent more likely to give you support and enact effective rituals for your own time as a kid. That structure and positive reinforcement reduces your risk of developing a mental illness later in life. It's particularly psychologically important to keep up those rituals when children become teens. So if you had a happy childhood, you may be able to credit it in part to your mom's inability to stop dancing to Christmas songs.

Sure, some traditions we stick to simply because we enjoy them. But the next time you're confused about, say, the ongoing popularity of fruitcake as a holiday gift...well, now you might understand it a little better.

Images: Giphy