The Psychology and Science of Tradition & Ritual
Human beings are hyper-social animals, often coming together through shared practices, traditions and rituals to form a social glue that binds groups within our society. Even families — the most fundamental social group — benefit from the cohesion of rituals and traditions.
Traditions throughout History
Back when families had to band together in communities for protection and division of labor, traditions and rituals contributed to overall prosperity and allegiance to the group. Today, traditions like standing for the National Anthem, observing national holidays, or obeying traffic laws also have obvious unifying and practical benefits. Human cultures have always relied on traditions to govern, to establish shared, standard behavior, and to keep society running on a more or less even kilter.
Rituals have also been defined as the outward demonstration of inward value, and religious traditions and rituals can serve to recognize an individual’s place in the cosmos — from birth, to marriage, to receiving last rites. Within religious groups, many rituals are seen as timeless and unite the faithful across many generations.
Much research has shown that traditions and ritual have psychological benefits within family life. Yet, are family rituals a sign of an already strong family, or do they play an important role in adding strength to the family? Maybe the answer is yes to both sides of the question.
Either way, family rituals--from daily dinners around the table to annual road trips--can help families bond and form a strong group identity, increasing each individual member's sense of belonging to the family unit and their culture at large. Family values and beliefs are also often transmitted through these rituals, perhaps even without your realizing what is happening. Furthermore, traditions can promote a child's positive emotional development and help children cope by providing them with a trusted foundation of stability that remains throughout new social situations and difficult times in their lives.
Benefits of Traditions and Rituals
Even in modern times, rituals still have intrinsic value to offer to societies. For example, according to Scientific American researchers have found that:
- Rituals performed after experiencing loss (whether it's losing a game or something much more serious like losing a loved one) can help to alleviate grief. Funerals and wakes help the bereaved cope with death. Tearing up a losing lottery ticket helps the unlucky player move on.
- Rituals performed before stressful tasks actually reduce anxiety and increase confidence. The major league batter who pulls up his socks, adjusts his batting grip and makes the sign of the cross before stepping up to the plate is performing but one example of many sports rituals that verge on superstition.
Rituals even appear to benefit those who claim not to believe in their importance. Don’t ask Michael Jordan why he wore his North Carolina sports shorts beneath his Chicago Bulls garb – or if he believed that ritual made him an outstanding player. Tomorrow, as you go through your day, take a moment to think about what rituals you follow, why you follow them, and how they might just be helping you!