With bitter cold gripping the U.S., Americans everywhere will be watching with bated – and frozen – breath to see if the groundhog sees his shadow on Feb. 2. According to folklore, if he does, the groundhog will retreat back into his burrow and winter will continue for another six weeks. If he doesn’t, then spring will arrive early.
But whatever the verdict, this fun and peculiar custom still stands to answer several fundamental, human questions, says Sean Duffy, an associate professor of psychology and director of the graduate psychology program at Rutgers–Camden.
“The most important questions that we try to resolve as human beings are ‘Where did we come from?,’ ‘Who are we?,’ and ‘Where we’re going?,’” explains Duffy, a Philadelphia resident. “These holidays speak to all of these queries; they remind us of where we came from, they put us in place where we are now, and they direct us to where we are going.”
Duffy notes that, for most Americans, Groundhog Day is nothing more than entertaining fodder for conversation and a sound bite on the evening news. Nonetheless, for countless communities dotting the country, including scores throughout Pennsylvania, the holiday is marked with festivals steeped in centuries-old German customs. According to the researcher, such cultural traditions tacitly remind revelers that they are part of a community.
“These traditions bring people together,” Duffy says, adding, “Historically, Groundhog Day has filled that void between Christmas and Easter; it gets people together during the cold winter months at a time when they normally wouldn’t be.”
As Duffy explains, all of the rituals and fare associated with a holiday serve vital psychological purposes. For instance, he notes, food is an important, understudied part of ethnic identity.
“It reminds us of who we are,” he says. “For Germans, it’s the sausage, the pretzel, and the stein. The pretzel itself is a fundamental German staple with a long tradition in Philadelphia and the surrounding region.”
Just as importantly, while doing the Pennsylvania Polka may be fun, Duffy affirms that dancing with others has been shown to foster fellowship and group cohesion. Participants are more likely to agree with one another, to resolve complex tasks together, and to see the world through the same lens.
“Dancing shows us that we can do things together,” Duffy says. “Nothing is accidental; there’s a reason why dancing, across a variety of different cultures, is part of these traditions. As a psychologist, you realize that, as silly as something may seem, there has to be a functional reason that people do this.”
Of course, what could be sillier than a holiday revolving around that great prognosticator – the groundhog. Duffy notes that many cultural traditions have a certain levity to them, which in many ways enables them to thrive. “A more congruous holiday” would get boring, he says, and be subjected to scientific inquiry.
“It’s inherently funny that we are listening to whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not,” says Duffy, who taught a course titled “Culture of Humor.” “If we frame the question as, ‘If it’s cloudy or sunny on Feb. 2 will determine whether there will be six more weeks of winter,’ we would make a scientific hypothesis on it, and then prove or disprove it. The humor in it gives it a lasting power.”
Duffy adds that traditions don’t seem so silly when they are experienced together with others. He notes, “We do it without questioning it.”
A member of the Rutgers–Camden faculty since 2005, Duffy conducts research on a variety of topics at the intersection of cognitive, cultural, developmental and social psychology. He is frequently cited as a media expert on a variety of topics related to his expertise. Duffy earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Research Center for Group Dynamics of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.