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Lure of Tradition: Longevity Bias Proves Persistent

If something has been around longer, it must be better. New research suggests we hold onto that bias even in instances where quality has nothing to do with longevity.
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For all our fascination with novelty, human beings seem to have an instinctual preference for the tried and true. That’s the implication of research that finds telling people something has stood the test of time makes them more likely to judge it favorably, whether they are assessing art or acupuncture.

“The longer something is thought to exist, the better it is evaluated,” write the authors of the just-published study, University of Arkansas psychologists Scott Eidelman and Jennifer Pattershall and University of Kansas psychologist Christian Crandall. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they report this dynamic holds true even in situations where longevity has no objective relationship to quality.

Eidelman and his colleagues describe five separate studies confirming this thesis. In one, 91 University of Maine students read a brief essay about acupuncture, which informed them it has been around for 250, 500, 1,000 or 2,000 years.

They then responded to three statements about the practice, including “I think acupuncture is a good technique.” When their responses were tallied, a clear pattern emerged: The longer they believed acupuncture has been practiced, the more likely they were to evaluate it positively.

In another study, 29 University of Arkansas students looked at a reproduction of a relatively unknown abstract painting: “Moon Landscape” by German artist Max Beckmann. They were then presented with a questionnaire, which asked them to respond to such statements as “This painting is pleasant to look at” and “This painting is good.”

A single line at the top of the questionnaire reported that the work was created in either 1905 or 2005. Those who thought it was a century old rated it “as more aesthetically pleasing” than those who thought it was a recent creation.

That same dynamic held when students were asked to rate the aesthetic value of a live oak tree, and — perhaps most strikingly — the taste of chocolate. Those informed the European candy they sampled was first sold in 1937 found it better-tasting than those who were told it debuted in 2003.

Eidelman and his colleagues note the longer-is-better bias is far from irrational; after all, time often weeds out inferior products. But in their studies, “objects and outcomes were still judged as better” even in cases where longevity was irrelevant.

Great paintings, they point out, can be created in any era, and a beautiful tree is a beautiful tree. But for the study participants, the aura of longevity increased their appeal.

“These findings speak to the lure of tradition,” the researchers write — an allure marketers know well. But they add this dynamic has potentially disturbing consequences in the social realm.

“Because longevity promotes its own favorability, it may confer legitimacy on otherwise undesirable practices” such as torture, they write. “It may also add another hurdle to overcome on the road toward social change.”

This helps explain why it took a half-century to overhaul the American health-care system – and why future efforts to amend established but dysfunctional systems won’t be any easier. “Overcoming the status quo is tricky,” the researchers conclude, “but overcoming a time-honored tradition is substantially more difficult.”