We’re tribal animals. For most of the time people have been on earth, the Tribe, out side of our immediate family, has been the most important group. This developed long before we had language as an instinctive tendency. Like wolves, we have always been pack animals. We are stronger as a group than we are on our own and survival is much more likely if we band together in a group. We have evolved both competitive and cooperative instincts as mechanisms to enable working together.
The competitive aspect is important to allow those with “leadership” capabilities to develop and rise to the “top” while the cooperative nature is required to ensure every one of the tribal members gets part of the tribe’s “spoils” as well as ensuring full participation in tribal activities.
We also have a long history of “Tribe” to “Tribe” competition. Obviously, if one tribe gets carried away with this and proceeds with the annihilation of all rival tribes, the ability of the species to propagate would be severely compromised. This ongoing struggle has undoubtedly been a major factor in the migration of our species to all virtually all continents on the planet.
Language developed along tribal lines as a means of furthering the organizational requirements of increasingly sophisticated hunting techniques and the development of agriculture pushed this even further.
It should also be noted that we’re talking about a spectrum of circumstances and conditions, climates and just plain fate. A brilliant leader might even find a way to consolidate several tribes, form alliances and conquer a large territory.
Psychologists and sociologists vary in the estimates of what size the typical Tribe was, but it probably enlarged over time along with increased specialization and organizational capabilities, as well as some means of long term record keeping and the passing along of “tribal knowledge”.
Somewhere in all of this development, the concept of “us and them” appeared, when encountering other Tribes and encountering disputes. It was easier to deal with certain unsavory actions in dealing with “them” if they were viewed as being lesser in some way, or perhaps characterized as “evil”.
A huge range of practices could be seen as evidence of this. Ranging from the way another Tribe buried their dead, taboos concerning sexual practices or the ingesting of forbidden substances or unclean food, certain behaviors were viewed as proof of the malevolent nature of the “enemy”.
Undoubtedly, some of these characterizations carried on for generations with people forgetting exactly why they hated each other or what would result from eating forbidden fruit. There is a fine line between instinct and emotion, with it being difficult to define where one stops and the other starts. We’ll probably never know exactly how much behavior is innate and exactly what is learned.
As the size of our Tribes has increased, some of the behavior may no longer be functional or be adapted to other purposes. Anyone who has witnessed a fight break out in the stands at a football game between rival fans knows this is true. Or political arguments on Facebook
In a recent study, Yale behavioral economist Dan Kahan asked over 1,500 people if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “There is solid evidence of recent global warming due mostly to human activity such as burning fossil fuels.” Kahan also collected information on their political beliefs, and measured their “science intelligence”— based on answers to questions developed by the National Science Foundation, Pew Research Center, and others. These questions are intended to gauge a combination of scientific knowledge and quantitative reasoning proficiency.
If you take a look at the chart below, you’ll find that rather than reach some scientific consensus, the more people knew about science the more they used their knowledge and reasoning skills to “prove” what their political beliefs required.
We’ve all heard the phrase “Confirmation Bias”, but I think this goes beyond that. Kahan observes: “A person who forms a position out of line with her cultural peers risks estrangement from the people on whom she depends on for emotional and material support”. For most people coming to a conclusion that fits the pre-conceived beliefs of their “Tribe” is much more likely than one reached using the scientific method.
Referring to this sort of behavior as “tribal” might be a bit of a stretch in some circles, but I do think it tends to explain the psychological basis of this sort of “Motivated Reasoning”. In my opinion modern “Tribes” don’t always claim distinct geographical territories, but denote groups with similar beliefs, religions, political notions and even certain product brands: Harley Davidson might be an example of this. I’ve already mentioned loyalty to a particular sports team.
There is a school of thought (Propagated by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman) that divides decision making into “System 1” thinking, which is more intuitive, automatic, emotion driven and quick, and “System 2” which is a more deliberate, reason driven analytical decision making processes, that adds learned behavior such as the “scientific method” and advanced math skills.
My take on this is that for much of our history, human beings evolved in Tribal bands that also evolved processes of settling disputes and developing behaviors that became more or less innate: enabling quick decisions that needed to be made with little deliberation and also encouraged maximum Tribal participation. There would be a strong bias towards proven methods that caused little disruption. These eventually evolved into cultural norms.
It would seem that “System 2” type thinking often ends up merely re-enforcing decisions that have already been made using “System 1” processes and/or have become cultural identifiers.
One of the modern organizations that have taken on a “Tribal” nature are political parties. For a long time in the United States they managed to function like a couple of neighboring Tribes that had formed an uneasy alliance, casting wary eyes at each other while trying to find ways to work together.
It’s now like they’re not even on the same team. Both parties stop just short of labeling each other as “evil”, and some of the candidates have moved beyond that. And some people follow along with them.
The danger in all of this is when decisions are primarily made from emotional, instinctive positions: especially if they tend to draw people into “Us Vs. Them” postures, is not likely to result in any sort of the compromises needed to allow large groups of people to live together.
Our Constitution was carefully calibrated to encourage the compromises necessary to allow 13 vastly different states to form a Union. Our former national motto: “E Pluribus Unum”, “Out of many, one”, illustrates this nicely, using precisely 13 characters to make it’s point.
We need to learn how to do this again.