5 Appeal to Tradition Fallacy Examples in Life

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“Because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

When I was working in my first position in child welfare at an agency that had been around for decades, this is the response I frequently received when questioning why certain processes were in place.

As a recent graduate from a master’s program in social work, I was up-to-date with best practices in trauma-informed care, and with a background in marketing, I had a firm grasp on new technological processes and programs that were both efficient and user-friendly. I was eager to maintain my momentum and make some serious changes in the lives of children–fast.

My personal circumstances made “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” an unacceptable answer for me. The entire field of social work focuses on change and innovation and this response didn’t reflect that.

Given the complex nature of the subject, lifelong learning is a critical component to working in this field. Research on best practices is ongoing, and organizations and individuals must continuously adapt by altering and updating their methods, policies, and even their organizational culture in an effort to reduce the long term effects of childhood trauma.

With that said, it doesn’t take long to get burned out when working in child welfare. Compassion fatigue, visceral trauma, and the 24/7 schedule lead to high turnover rates and physical and emotional exhaustion. So considering the fact that most of the employees had been at this agency for several years and I was at the top of my game, my enthusiasm for the subject was unmatched.

As it turns out, there’s a good reason why I found this answer to be unsatisfactory: It’s illogical. This answer commits the appeal to tradition logical fallacy, which is a faulty method of reasoning that has no firm basis.

I ended up getting laid off from this job after 10 months. The business, while very much needed in our community, was complacent. And, seeing as social services has a wide range of child welfare agencies from which to choose, they prefer to work with those who work efficiently and can effectively get children placed into safe environments.

In this article, we will look at the logical fallacy that is at the core of this mindset, the appeal to tradition fallacy. Let’s start by further defining this strategy, and then we will dive into some specific examples.

What Is the Appeal to Tradition Fallacy?

“Because that’s how we’ve always done it” is a response that stems from a quote attributed to Bert Lance, the 1977 Director of Office of Management and Budget for President Jimmy Carter, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yes, people are resistant to change. People are set in their ways, they fear the unknown, and unless the change results in a direct benefit to them, they’re not motivated to make it.

This issue is common in personal and professional situations alike. To be blunt, businesses who don’t continuously reinvent themselves and re-evaluate their strategies fail. Think of Blockbuster, Tower Records, and Circuit City. Unfortunately, the agency from which I got laid off falls into this category as well.

All this to say: embracing change is imperative. And the strategy of “leaving well enough alone” is not a winning one.

An appeal to tradition is a logical fallacy people use to claim that a current circumstance, process, or statement is true or superior to an alternative because “it's how it's always been done.” There isn’t data or evidence proving that such a belief is, in fact, better–it’s just assumed to be so because of its tradition or history of producing favorable outcomes.

This reasoning is fallacious because it relies on historical preferences rather than facts to prove its point. But without any data, there’s not enough documentation to assert a claim. In fact, admitting that the only reason behind something is historical preference highlights the fact that the speaker has no supportive evidence.

An appeal to tradition makes two faulty assumptions:

  • The old way of thinking was correct because it was proven at some point.
  • Any justification that was used in the past is still valid.

But the truth is, a tradition could have initially been based on a false premise–and even if something was true at one time, circumstances can change that revoke this truth.

Afterall, if appealing to past practices was logical, one could justify any incorrect but long-held belief.

Sound familiar?

The appeal to tradition fallacy is very similar to the bandwagon fallacy, which is based on the assumption that the majority’s opinion is automatically correct due to the number of people who believe it. However, this logic only proves that a belief is common, not that it's accurate. To create an appeal to tradition, just replace “people” with time.

Let’s look at some examples of this logical fallacy.

5 Appeal to Tradition Fallacy Examples in Life

1. Family Traditions

Did your family have any traditions when you were a child? Or have you started some family traditions in recent years? How many of your childhood traditions do you still practice?

Maybe you always spent Christmas Eve at your grandparents’ house, or you went to a certain beach every summer with your family. Or you may make Thanksgiving dinner exactly like your mother and grandmother used to make it. But as families evolve, traditions also transform to fit present-day circumstances.

Think of families who have consecutive generations of lawyers. Maybe they own a family practice that’s been continuously passed down to the family’s up and comers. Many children in the family assume their future is all taken care of because they have a guaranteed job once they graduate from college.

Now think of the child in the family who has dreams of pursuing a career in arts or theater. They may hear their parents counter this idea by saying, “Everyone in our family has worked for the law firm, so you need to apply to law school.”

But is that a good reason to shy away from your vision in life? Because every other child in the family has pursued a certain degree? If you’re a regular here on Develop Good Habits, you know this should not factor into your plans for your life, so this argument stems from faulty reasoning.

2. Laws

As more and more states are beginning to legalize the use of recreational marijuana, some may argue against this law, claiming that marijuana has always been considered to be a “gateway drug”–and, as an illicit substance, should remain illegal to consume.

Like many other political issues, this topic is polarizing. However, arguing that marijuana should remain illegal because it’s always been that way isn’t a logical argument. People can make a case for this argument instead by referencing the countless actual studies supporting the stance that marijuana is a gateway drug (so, presumably, should remain illegal).

However, there are studies to support the other side of this argument as well. Many acknowledge that while many people who abuse harder drugs started off using marijuana (which is more readily available), most people who’ve tried marijuana don’t go on to use harder drugs. Other factors come into consideration when harder drugs come into the picture, such as one’s social environment and interactions. 

No matter where you fall on the spectrum of this topic, making the argument that this drug should remain illegal because it’s already illegal is an assertion that originates with the appeal to tradition fallacy.

3. Religious Issues

There are few things in life that involve the level of tradition that religion does. While each religion may have its own traditions, they’re all ancient (or close to it) and people will sooner abandon their religion than question its traditions.

So let’s look at that: believing in a religion vs. not. People have been practicing religion for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until recently that an exponential number of Americans have declared that they’re unaffiliated with a religion.

With this in mind, some may argue that at least some form of religion must be true because so many people have believed in religious systems for so long.

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While each religion may have its own traditions, they’re all ancient (or close to it) and people will sooner abandon their religion than question its traditions.

This argument is an appeal to tradition because the only evidence it offers that proves the validity of the argument in favor of religion is the span of its duration. But consider how other age-old arguments have failed in the past: the claim that Earth is flat or that the Earth is the center of the universe.

So, it may be true that people have generally believed in religion for longer than they haven’t, but the conclusion that religion is true cannot be made by this observation. We would need more evidence about religion than its age before we could accept it as being either true or false, which makes this argument a logical fallacy.

4. Alternative Medicine

Traditional, alternative approaches to healthcare have been around for thousands of years–much longer than our modern scientific research and Western approach. And many people still swear by these ancient practices today.

There are many studies estimating the amount of money Americans spend every year on alternative medicine ($34 Billion, $30.2 Billion, $27 Billion), each proving that people believe in these products. But when the basis of these beliefs is simply that the methods have been around for centuries, the absence of facts proving alternative medicine is effective should alert you that you need to do more research.

Many forms of alternative medicine are known for their long histories that have stood the “test of time”– which some alternative medicine practitioners insist is more relevant than modern scientific findings.

Arguments in favor of alternative medicine are loaded with logical fallacies, and the appeal to tradition is certainly one of them. However, while having a long tradition of use may imply safety and efficacy, it doesn’t confirm it.

Scientists are still learning about the physiology of the human body today. So, when you think about it, it’s easy to recognize that the origins of traditional medicine date back to a time when the understanding of the human body and its functions was in its infancy, which may reduce the chances that such methods are effective.

5. Marketing

Logical fallacies are often used to sell products, and the appeal to tradition is no exception. Appealing to tradition fulfills consumers’ need for reference points, establishment, and trust. Studies show that people look to a product’s origin to determine its authenticity, so if something has been used by people in the local community for a long time, it’s likely to be trusted and accepted.

Many people prefer to stick with tradition because it’s more comfortable since it’s been around awhile and is familiar. For example, Abercrombie & Fitch claims itself to be the “original apparel and lifestyle” brand with roots stemming from the great outdoors. With a history dating back to 1892, A&F was once the chosen brand of the elite including presidents such as Theodore D. Roosevelt, actors, and famous writers who were loyal to this brand due to its well-respected reputation.

A&F commits the appeal to tradition fallacy in its marketing tactics because they rely on the power of heritage and a look of authenticity to create their traditional image. A&F’s customary clothing designs have been a reliable means of sales for decades because of this.

Another example of an appeal to tradition in marketing is Country Time Lemonade’s slogan: “Just like grandma used to make.” This idea gives consumers a sense of comfort, as many people associate “grandma’s” cooking with good memories of childhood and feeling cared for by their parents and grandparents. But logically, this reasoning doesn’t offer any proof that the lemonade is the best, rather it refers to its sense of tradition.

How to Avoid the Appeal to Tradition Fallacy

First off, when faced with a logical fallacy, you need to ask some challenging questions before drawing any kind of conclusion from the statement.

Similar to the bandwagon fallacy, the appeal to tradition fallacy doesn’t take any contrary evidence into account. Watch how this plays out:

Why do we do this process?

Because this is how it’s always been done.

On the other hand…

Why shouldn’t we do this process?

If someone uses this logical fallacy and is then presented with a contrary question, they’re forced to think of the alternative option or picture a situation in which the tradition has been broken. This can help them realize that there are other ways to successfully get things accomplished.

And, as always, remember to do your own research on a topic before firming up any personal beliefs.

Final Thoughts on the Appeal to Tradition Fallacy

Like other fallacies, claims regarding this logical fallacy aren’t necessarily untrue. The problem is when the only evidence offered is the long-standing history of an issue or phenomenon. After all, if an idea can stand the test of time, it can also be validated through re-testing.

While an appeal to tradition may sound convincing, you shouldn’t let it fool you. Be in the lookout for arguments that take this form to avoid falling for them and prevent yourself from accidentally using it yourself.

Learn More About Logical Fallacies

Finally, if you want a simple process to counter the logical fallacies and cognitive biases you encounter in life, then follow this 7-step process to develop the critical thinking skills habit.

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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