Experts say holiday rituals hard to change despite pleas from Bay Area health officials

Researchers think public officials need to change their messaging to focus more on how distancing and staying home for the holidays are in line with the value system many people embrace.
BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- We've heard pleas from health officials for families not to do traditional gatherings for Christmas. Busy airports indicate some lack of compliance. The question is why? Researchers at U.C. Berkeley and Harvard say It has to do with deep-seated rituals.

By tradition, this is a time to gather, to join crowds shopping, to go to church. Some people are either ignoring or dismissing pleas to forego these traditions for public safety. Researchers tell us it has to do with religious and secular rituals.

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"When peoples' rituals are altered, they respond with moral outrage, they feel angry, they judge the alteration to be wrong, and we find that this moral outrage persists, even when you have a good reason for altering the ritual," said Daniel Stein, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley.

Stein and other researchers from Cal and Harvard spoke with 3,000 people. They believe the behavior we saw at Thanksgiving and now at Christmas has to do with deep-seated values. Gathering at Thanksgiving is an expression of gratitude. Christmas gift-giving is a symbol of love. Changing behavior can be difficult, even when public safety is at stake.

There was an outcry in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to create more time to shop for Christmas. Complaints arise when the dates for daylight saving time are changed. People want to punish those who alter rituals.


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"In one of our experiments," said Stein. "We found that people wanted the person who altered the ritual to do activities such as clean the floor, or assigned them to do undesirable activities, such as scrub the toilet."

So the researchers think public officials need to change their messaging to focus more on how distancing and staying home for the holidays are in line with the value system many people embrace.

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"Christian values of being generous, kind, unselfish to others, to rephrase social distancing as a way to celebrate that Christian value to be generous to others to be kind to others could be a way to get individuals to follow the regulations," said Stein.

On a scale of one to seven, seven being the highest, survey participants ranked their moral outrage to changes in Christmas and New Year's rituals at five.

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