Fall is (almost) here, which means the annual proliferation of “pumpkin spice [insert product name]” is (almost) in full swing. Along with the usual suspects (looking at you, Starbucks), this year marks the return of the pumpkin spice Oreo for the first time in five years.
We could belabor the point with other examples, but suffice it to say, the phenomenon is so ubiquitous that this year Merriam-Webster has officially added “pumpkin spice” to the dictionary. If you’re wondering when the pumpkin spice craze will finally die, neuroscience has the answer –hopefully never.
By Mary Mathes and T. Sigi Hale, PhD; Alpha-Diver
The Cultural Cycles Model
The explanation for the annual pumpkin spice wave is found in Dr. Hale’s Cultural Cycles Model, a framework that combines aspects of both neural-network theory and sociology. In a nutshell, it describes the three cultural mindsets we humans continually rotate through: Belong, Rebel, and Explore.
This cycling occurs on the micro and the macro level. Any given person flows through all these states over a day, a year, and a lifetime. At the macro levels, the seasons of the calendar year lead us through these three cycles, and societally we tend to flow through one mindset into the next about every decade. The 2020s, accelerated by the COVID pandemic, happen to be the next decade of Exploration, in which we’ll seek out new, personalized ways of living and interacting.
What Does This Have to do With Pumpkin Spice?
According to the Cultural Cycles Model, the start of fall marks the turning from the personal Exploration season of summer (traditionally a time for relaxing, breaking from obligations and routines like school, vacation season, individual expression, etc.) into a culture-wide recommitment to and settling in for the coming onslaught of family time and togetherness (Belonging) brought on by the holiday season.
“Pumpkin spice season” has become our cultural shorthand for “it’s time to come back to the fold, back to our norms and routines, back together.” Indulging in a PSL or swapping your regular sweet treat out for the pumpkin spice version proclaims, “I’m enthusiastically playing along with this cultural practice / ethos. It’s meaningful to me.”
Even poking fun at those who eagerly embrace the season is an indicator of a well-functioning system. To function, culture always requires a shared set of values and interests. If this common ground is strong and intact, we can assimilate a great deal of individuality and diversity alongside our shared psychology.
So, within the cultural common ground of welcoming the arrival of fall, we can handle some good-natured debate about when is “too early” to bust out the pumpkins and start pining for “sweater weather.” Those who love it are free to indulge, just as those who love to mock it largely do so in a good-natured manner (i.e., memes, parody songs, satirical articles).
Take this Starbucks menu board spotted a few years back in Louisville. It simultaneously winks at those who look down their noses at those “basic [customers]” ordering their PSLs and invites the patron who wants one to “answer the call” and order as their cozy season-loving heart desires. Everyone wins.
The model also explains why pumpkin spice season starts earlier each year
While cynics would say the gradual moving up of the #pumpkineverything annual kickoff is just corporate greed, neuroscience suggests there’s more going on than that. Here’s where things get a little scary (and not in the fun “Halloween is coming” sense).
Welcome the ‘Belong’ Season
We all go along with this gourd-crazed zeitgeist (or roll our eyes at it) for a reason. It’s part of our collective ushering in of the Belong season, a reminder of our common ground and shared ethos. However, when societal common ground gets shaky, symbiosis fades into chaos. Diversity of thought becomes fodder for cultural warfare (i.e., “cancel culture”) as we struggle to re-establish what unites us and to rewrite the “operational bylaws” by which we will live.
The events of recent years—global pandemic, social and political unrest, war, and now economic unrest—have been increasing our collective need to do this recommitment work. As our culture feels increasingly polarized and in disarray, there is a general sense that our Belonging rituals carry a bigger significance. We need to reconnect and reestablish our norms and bonds. If we can’t come together around pumpkin spice and the spirit of the fall and winter holidays, we’re in trouble societally.
Seen through this lens, it’s hardly surprising that 2021 marked the earliest date the PSL has ever returned to the Starbucks menu: collectively, we needed this symbol. We’ve been working harder than usual these last few years to set the cultural symbiosis table. Pumpkin spice and everything it stands for remains, so far, apolitical. And, hopefully, that’s how it will stay.
Instinctual Drive on the Rise
Evolutionarily speaking, an important measuring stick of human progress is the extent to which the cultural mindset is aligned with our brains’ frontal lobe characteristics (rational and experiential) versus aligning with our more ‘cave brain’ instinctual mindset. Currently, our cultural mindset is trending more toward the instinctual drive. In our longitudinal database measuring these drivers of human behavior, we are seeing all-time high levels of this ‘cave brain’ tendency. Historically, when we get to culturally scaled expressions of instinct, things almost always go sideways. It’s the point at which groups can become mobs.
So where do we go from here?
The current cultural climate is a tug-of-war between a strong need to Belong and a strong need to redo our cultural norms (as prescribed by the macro cycle of Discovery this decade brings). We’re in the thick of tearing down old, long-held ways of doing things and putting our attention toward new ideas of our future culture. We’re in conflict. This “culture war” is in the background of everything. We’re all feeling it in our holiday gatherings when differing ideologies clash across the Thanksgiving table and our instinctual drives to “better than-ness” turn what were once productive debates into holy wars about who is and is not worthy.
But our need for Belonging and recommitment is real too. If things turn out well, Belonging will win the day and remind us of our common ground, and that working things out via healthy debate and discussion of new contexts and ideas is the better way.
So go ahead and indulge in that PSL or fill your grocery cart with pumpkin spice Goldfish crackers. They mean there are still some things we can all agree on, or at least agree to make mild fun of together.
Mary Mathes is Director of Data Insights for Alpha-Diver, the market research firm that applies neuroscience to more deeply understand marketplace behavior. She is an expert in revealing strategic, data-driven stories, who has honed a unique ability to distill crucial insights, place business challenges in context, and devise tangible solutions that let clients activate Alpha-Diver’s neuroscience-driven understanding on another level.
Sigi Hale, PhD was an NIH-funded neuroscientist and principal investigator at UCLA before entering the private sector. He is now the Principal Neuroscientist / Director of Research at Alpha-Diver, the market research & consulting firm that applies neuroscience to more deeply understand marketplace psychology and behavior. He works closely with the firm’s behavioral scientists and strategists to assist leading brands, retailers, and the Wall Street analyst community to explain, measure, and predict consumer behavior.