Traditionalism and Cautionary Behavior

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Traditionalism, a synonym for conservatism, is defined as “the tendency to embrace what are perceived to be the longstanding norms and values of one’s group, while rejecting changes to them.” During COVID, much of the writing on human behavior revolved around the actions of the conservatives vs. liberals. An anthropologic study looks at the role of traditionalism during COVID more globally.

"Because of our traditions,

We've kept our balance for many, many years.

You may ask, how did this tradition start?

I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition...”

Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof

Traditionalism has long been associated with avoiding hazards, from dietary to cultural. The embrace of those injunctions varies among individuals, each applying their weighting of the costs and benefits. Tradition provides the advantage of avoiding a perceived hazard, and there is a social payoff; our behavior signals are tribe, our “in-group identity,” which, in turn, facilitates cooperation and reciprocity, at least from other tribe members.  

The researchers suggest that all things being equal,

“those who evince greater traditionalism will be more inclined to attempt to diminish the risk of acquiring transmissible disease.”

Of course, all things are not equal, and that calculus of cost and benefit is what the researchers sought to uncover. When is the linkage between traditionalism and its avoidance of danger broken? They point out that much of the current literature reflects hypothetical risk, but the pandemic of COVID offers a real-world laboratory.

  • Real-world behaviors are “inherently costly” and reflect an individual’s cost-benefit decision
  • For disease, there is the risk of “taking insufficient precautions against a hazardous disease versus the social and opportunity costs entailed by being overly cautious.”
  • Individuals are influenced by their information “environment” and “social ecologies.” Information, as we have seen, can take on positive or negative moral tones and our behavior can boost or lower our reputational among kith and kin.

Is it beginning to sound familiar?

Do COVID19 health precautions, as potential manifestations of general pathogen avoidance tendencies, positively correlate with traditionalism across diverse societies? 

Using self-reported precautionary behavior (mask, social distancing, etc.) and the “individuals’ general tendency to endorse or reject the traditional norms and values of their society writ large,” the answer is yes. At least for 16 of the 27 countries evaluated. [1]

Do perceived tradeoffs between health precautions and other priorities influence the traditionalismprecautions relationship? 

To answer this question, the researcher identified several factors that might suppress or reverse that linkage. They include “precautions promulgated by public health authorities” threatening economic prosperity or interfering with traditional practices, e.g., church or gym attendance central to one’s identity. In the US, those factors included a lower trust in science, a more significant cultural tightness, described as “stronger more heavily enforced social norms and constraints”- social dominance orientation (SDO), and “greater economic conservatism.

Globally, these were the five suppressors of the link between traditionalism and COVID public health efforts. When that linkage was assessed and those five factors adjusted, the number of countries showing a positive association between traditionalism and precautions rose to 21 of 27, a 31% improvement in the linkage. While the effect may vary from country to country, those five factors had a global impact on the human response to this virus.

Health precautions include behavior that is seen, like wearing a mask or social distancing, and more private, “internal-facing precautions,” like hand washing. We are social animals, and our linkage to traditionalism remains greater in private than public display. Given that others see many of our public health measures, we may place a greater value on them as they can impair social relationships and traditional practices. The behavior we see concerning not wearing masks or social distancing, the demand for indoor gatherings, or an end to lockdowns is not a simple calculation; moreover, it is not necessarily the result of being misinformed.

“It is thus crucial to recognize and address potential conflicts or tradeoffs that may inhibit tradition-minded individuals from adopting vital prophylactic and treatment practices beneficial to themselves, their societies, and the global community.”



[1] The researchers acknowledge that their population sample was one of convenience rather than representative, that the countries themselves were not globally represented, being more of the Northern Hemisphere, and were not all culturally diverse.

Source: Greater traditionalism predicts COVID‑19 precautionary behaviors across 27 societies Nature Scientific Reports DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-29655-0