Why Tradition Isn’t Always What It’s Cracked up to Be

Whether it’s a treasured family recipe for chocolate fudge or a technique for doing long division, our daily activities are peppered with traditions of one kind or another – customs or ways of doing things that have been passed on from one generation to the next.

We have a lot of musical traditions as well. Some are related to technique and how we play our instrument, while many are related to the musical aspect of how we approach certain pieces of music.

Understanding our lineage, and the traditions that have been passed down over generations is of course very valuable and meaningful, but sometimes, remaining too faithful to tradition can be a problem.

How so?

Innovate to keep the tradition going

At times, blindly following tradition can lead to staleness.

I recently watched an episode of PBS’s entertaining series The Mind of a Chef (on Netflix) in which chef David Chang visited a miso factory in Japan. Miso, is of course a very traditional ingredient in Japanese cuisine, but while this manufacturer was certainly intent on keeping the tradition, they were also interested in incrementally pushing the envelope.

“We believe that protecting our tradition is to go forward. The part you protect and the part you innovate has to move in parallel. Otherwise, a thousand years from now we will still be exactly the same. The president [of the miso factory] is always trying new things. By being innovative he keeps the tradition going.”

Scores vs. recordings

And sometimes, following tradition can actually lead us further and further astray. Like putting song lyrics through several cycles of Google Translate (here’s “Let It Go” from Frozen ), we can find ourselves becoming increasingly removed from the original source material with each successive generation.

Leon Fleisher once told a student (who was being a little too faithful to their favorite recording) to disregard every recording they had ever heard. And instead, to look at the score with fresh eyes. To actually play what was written in the score without being influenced by tradition and interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. He said that when we play what is actually in the score, we might be surprised to discover that it’s not the piece that we thought it was. That perhaps, we never really knew the piece at all.

Great artists, curve-jumping innovators, and visionary game-changers seem to be able to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, yet somehow also unbind themselves from the constraints or limitations of others’ ways of thinking and forge new paths.

But why is this so hard for many of us to do? Whether it’s the way we play the opening of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or the way we eat chicken wings (apparently there’s a better way ), are we wired to follow in the footsteps of others, or is there more to it than this?

The psychological mechanism behind traditions?

A pair of Swedish researchers recruited 120 participants to conduct a series of four experiments designed to learn more about the psychology behind traditions.

In all four studies, participants were instructed to make a choice between two pictures. They would have 20 such trials, and were told that each time they chose the wrong picture, they would receive a mild electrical shock. Before beginning, they each got to view a previous participant’s trials, but were not shown whether that choice resulted in a shock or not.

In reality, nobody was actually given any shocks in experiment #1 (whew!), but they were shown a video in which a person chose picture A all 20 times. Lo and behold, 95% of the participants chose picture A every single time too.

In experiment #2, participants were still threatened by the possibility of a shock for the wrong answer, but also incentivized by the possibility of a reward for the right answer (movie tickets). In this scenario, participants were more emboldened to experiment a bit, and followed the lead of the person in the video only about 60% of the time.

Experiment #3 was exactly like experiment #1, except that participants actually were given shocks – but totally at random, not based on their answers! In this scenario, participants were somewhat less inclined to follow the lead of the person in the video (about 70% vs. 95% in the first experiment), but they still demonstrated a tendency to prefer copying the actions of the person in the video, even when that behavior came with negative consequences.

Experiment #4 was set up to see if the choices of one person could influence subsequent participants, and hence lead to the establishment of a “tradition.” They set up 5 “generations” of participants, and like the previous experiments, measured the proportion of times picture A was chosen in each successive generation. Long story short, they found that the more times A was chosen in one generation, the more likely it was to be chosen in the next generation.

Take action

Having to choose between two pictures, under the threat of being shocked for the wrong choice in a lab is obviously a far cry from the nuanced and more complex situations we experience out in the real world.

But how often do we take the easy way out and simply follow the lead of others rather than experimenting and trying new things? And sure, nobody likes being wrong, or making a mistake. We learned at an early age that this usually feels bad.

But in much the same way that the best ideas in brainstorming are often the result of piggybacking on inane ideas that at first sound ridiculous or laughable, perhaps the willingness to try something new and maybe appear foolish is the cost of awesomeness?

One of my mentors in grad school once told me that it is much easier to get through life and do cool and remarkable things when we see everything as a grand experiment, rather than a series of tests that we either pass or fail.

What would happen if you approached every choice or course of action this week as an experiment? Where there are no successes or failures, but simply results, and all of it valuable information – which might just lead to some new possibilities that may not otherwise have revealed themselves?

The one-sentence summary

“You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.” ~Will Rogers

Additional resources

More on David Chang and the balance between following tradition and innovating:

Cooking with David Chang’s Momofuku Cookbook, or Exercises in Innovation and Convention

More google translate song covers

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
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