Critical need to understand Tribalism in the current volatile environment

The idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is very fundamental in psychology. Belonging does not just feel good but is often essential for our very survival, even in modern times.

As Jane Howard, biographer of anthropologist Margaret Mead, puts it “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies in people to favor members of their own group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsider distinctions seem to be innate and well entrenched. This favoritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

As social animals we depend on our groups, our tribes, literally for our survival. And it would be consistent with that interpretation that the more threatened we feel, by economic uncertainty, or threats of terrorism, or environmental doom and gloom, the more we circle the wagons of our opinions to keep the tribe together and keep ourselves safe.

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It’s a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don’t fit into their groups. People who share our particular qualities are our “in-group,” and those who do not are our “out-group.”

Let us take a look at Social Identity theory. Psychologists Tajfel, Billig and Turner have shown that part of our social identity comes from those groups with whom we associate. Interestingly, we show this strong bias in favor of ‘in-group’ members, even when the groups are arbitrarily formed. Tajfel demonstrated this in an experiment where he assigned people randomly into groups but, although everyone had seen and noted that the assignment was random, they still showed a preference for members of their group over other people, even going to the extent of giving rational arguments about how unpleasant and immoral the ‘out-group’ people were.

The term group here is rather a loose expression as it refers to any type of grouping starting from your classmates, office colleagues, same club members, working mothers or social activists, depending on your individual sense of belonging to a particular cluster.

The in-group may also consist of a tribe, a religious group, speakers of a common language, or, within nations, interest groups such as workers, gun owners, or farmers. Each person is typically a member of several groups, each of which can potentially command this sort of loyalty.

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Perhaps there is some survival mechanism at work in formulating in-group-out-group distinctions. In our desire to feel safe, we bond together with those whom we see as most like us so that we can protect ourselves from those who might do us harm. The virtual fences we build to keep the outsiders away allows us to lead our daily lives with a feeling of being protected and secure. However, it is precisely these fences that keep us from bonding with our fellow human beings which in fact, may compromise our true security.

Many a times tribal loyalties tend to override objectivity and rational decision making. One such manifestation of group loyalty was reported in The New York Times, where the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn shunned a neighbor after learning that he told police about a man – a fellow Jew – who was sexually abusing his son. As an objective person you would think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be honored, appreciated and supported. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is disloyal to the tribe.

We have also read reports that show this dangerous tribe-centered attitude by Catholic Church authorities abandoning their morals and severely compromising the safety of vulnerable children by covering up, ignoring, or denying extensive evidence of child abuse by a small number of priests.

The severest form of tribalism that is tearing the world apart is religious fanaticism.

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Scott Atran, Hammad Sheikh and Angel Gomezc gave very interesting insights in their interviews with United States officials familiar with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of the Islamic State, and his close circle, including General Douglas Stone, who commanded Camp Bucca where they were held.

They suggest that these jihadists were absolutely committed “purists,” completely devoted to their idea of Sharia and the Caliphate, and willing to do anything for it and were willing to use violence to instill blood lust among their followers and terror among enemies. They also believe that the unconditional commitment to comrades, in conjunction with their sacred cause, may be what allows low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes.

Let there be no doubts that tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason. Think of the inhuman things we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism – wipe out the other group to keep our group safe – taken to madness. Racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better than theirs, parents who end contact with their own children when they dare marry someone of a different faith or color – are all examples of tribalism trumping common sense and objectivity.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Nationalists are concerned with their fellow citizens, regardless of the effect on outsiders. Nationalists are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest in order to harm outsiders, e.g., in war, for the benefit of co-nationals.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor was very honest when she said “Let me let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as an international community. There are only self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”


The reason for this is that it creates solidarity in the group, which increases the chances that our group’s views, influence and power will prevail in society which, incidentally, is how political parties work.

It is clear to any observer that people are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion.

This is because they trust them more, relax with them better in business and social events, and prefer them more often than not as marriage partners. They are quicker to anger at evidence that an out-group is behaving unfairly or receiving undeserved rewards. And they grow hostile to any out-group encroaching upon the territory or resources of their in-group.

When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdalas, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.

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When, on the other hand, appropriate context like the approaching black being a doctor of the white American observer was added, then the situation changed as the two higher learning centers viz. the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain got activated, silencing threat response from the amygdala.

Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that when they extended these amygdala studies on children they found something very interesting. The racial sensitivity of the amygdala is not noticeable until around the age fourteen and even once it kicks in, its effect is not uniform across people. For instance, children exposed to more racially diverse peer group exhibited less strong amygdala effect. In fact, at really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared altogether. The authors of the study suggest that neural biases to race therefore are not innate and that race is actually a social construction, learned over time.

It is worthwhile pointing out that shifting strong tribal conflicts from the very real battlefield of war and mutual human destruction to sports arenas and video games can be looked at as a civilizational progress. Victories in team sports can provide the satisfaction of showing the superiority of their own group over the other groups without the damaging consequences of real conflicts.

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