Belonging to a Tribe

To view human beings as naturally tribal is a commonplace: we’re “tribal animals”; tribalism is “hard-wired” into our brains, and so it goes. If one observes the way that many people behave in both real and virtual spaces these days, it’s hard to argue the fact. According to psychological studies, humans will sort themselves into us/them groups within seconds, and for almost any reason. Personal identity seems to be increasingly tied to group membership—belonging to this or that tribe. We tend to congregate with others who possess similar characteristics, such as race or nationality, political affiliation, likes or dislikes—or based on perceived similarities of status and values. Like fans of a favorite team, it is “only natural” that we then give preference to members of our tribe.

The work of Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel in developing what is called social identity theory is important to an understanding of the psychology of tribalism. Experiments have shown that people show favoritism toward their own group, no matter how flimsy the identification. We’re A—yay! They’re B—boo! Tribal conformity, signaling, and bias tend to follow. In 2008 Bill Bishop addressed the downside of tribalism in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

Tribalism has survival value; strong cohesion allows human groups to meet challenges. As individuals mature, our fundamental need to belong seeks avenues beyond the family (our first “tribe”). We develop varied interests and make wider social contacts, and thus have increasing opportunities to belong. One may “join”—directly or indirectly—any number of different “tribes” over the course of life, whether as participant or follower, player or fan. In today’s connected world, a sense of belonging often is found through virtual connections, such as social media. Some tribes are random and harmless niche groups (for example, the Team Edward/Team Jacob divide from the Twilight series). But other tribal oppositions, especially in politics, in the streets, and increasingly on social media, raise serious issues.

A need to exclude is apparently just as fundamental to human nature, if you will, as a need to belong. Because tribalism is experienced as an us/them identity, attitudes toward the Other can become irrationally aggressive or suspicious. When tribethink becomes a rallying force for putting ideas into action, it becomes less likely that we’ll encounter, much less consider, views different from our own. To do otherwise requires self-awareness and conscious effort. Getting beyond tribalism is what one might call civilization. Forms of social organization allow the concept of “us” to expand through cooperation. A drive to cooperate, or form coalitions, is also “hard-wired,” and society is viable only as multiple tribes discover how to get along. E pluribus unum, y’all.

Photo credit: © Jason Edwards/National Geographic/Getty Images

Related Links

  • Tribal Psychology
    Listen to this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast with an interview with a political scientist and a psychologist on the nature of our tribal mind-sets and behaviors; read the transcript here —but the text has a LOT of mistakes.
    (Source: You Are Not So Smart, February 26, 2018)
  • Are Humans Naturally Tribal?
    This article answers, Yes, and examines both the survival value and the downsides of this primal psychological drive.
    (Source: Be Human Project, March 5, 2014)
  • Tribal World: Identity Is All
    This article looks at how tribalism made foreign entanglements of the United States (in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam) more complicated and difficult and also how political and cultural tribalism at home is undermining social unity.
    (Source: Foreign Affairs, July–August, 2018)

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