The psychology of tribes

This is the first part of a series of articles which will make up an examination of the morality of behaviour of groups, corporations and governments.

Morality of Groups 1: the psychology of tribes

When acting in ways which relate primarily to their membership of a group, a person’s behaviour changes to reflect the beliefs and aspirations of the group rather than those of the individual. This is an important trait from hunter gatherer times when strong tribal identity was essential to survival, but it’s necessary for any group to find ways to emphasize the characteristic of group membership because it’s that identification with the group which helps promote cooperation and selflessness in the behaviour of its members.

Tribal psychology is characterised by (in part, at least, since I leave out the many positives in giving the list below):

  1. Grandiose tribal self image: one’s own tribe has certain positive characteristics. Here is a Somali tribesman “Let me clearly state here that the noble (the name of the writer’s tribe) people are mainly a proud, good cultured, and good natured people who share whatever little they have with others. They are also a cooperative, visionary, and progressive people; positive attributions in which our enemies fail to emulate from us time and immemorial” This is reinforced by historical and legendary triumphs which illustrate the martial prowess and virtue of the tribe.
  2. The tribal shadow: other tribes are evil and inhuman, and have held back one’s own tribe for centuries. Here is the same Somali “In addition, I would like to state here that the enemies of the (the name of the writer’s tribe) have six things in common as indicated below: Tremendous greed, selfishness, and a blinding envy; Intoxicating power hungriness; Lack of the know-how to govern a nation; Culture of unchecked oppression, injustice, and tyranny; Quest to one day defeat and rule the ( the name of the writer’s tribe ) people by hook or crook; To one day ethnically cleanse all the ( the name of the writer’s tribe ) people and to grub their huge territories; and their futile attempts to destroy the cause and existence of (our country).” These ideas area reinforced, in turn, by historical and legendary defeats and injustices.
  3. Group polarization is an idea which was developed to account for the way in which otherwise peaceful and decent white Americans in the deep south of the US could turn into a vicious lynch mob in their spare time. Tribal identity gains dominance over that of an individual’s self identity in situations of tribal conflict and competition. It almost takes over during times of war. In such situations dehumanization is a tribal weapon of choice. Enemies are referred to as “cockroaches”, “mad dogs”, “rats”, “savages”, “slaves”, “traitors” etc.
  4. Group think: tribes value concensus and unity very highly, and group cohesion and cooperation between tribe members is obviously very important to the survival of the tribe. It’s not surprising therefore that humans have evolved a tendency to conform to the predominant beliefs and opinions of groups to which they belong. Holding opinions contrary to the concensus engenders stress in the individual, and carries with it the risk of social exclusion. In any case given the other aspects of tribal psychology, information is filtered through a set of prejudices which will tend to reinforce the group’s beliefs.

Leaders have always taken advantage of this sort of tribal thinking in order to form a base of support for themselves and their policies. Slobodan Milosovic is a classic example, building Serbian nationalism around a mixture of

  • Revenge for the defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 at the hands of the Turks (a battle seen as a defeat at the hands of evil unbelievers of a potential Serbian renaissance.) Almost unknown, it became a byword to the least educated Serbs. A series of injustices, real and imagined, were drummed into children and adults alike. They served to illustrate the perfidy and inhumanity of the enemy (Albanians, muslims, and others) and the nobility and sacrifice of the Serbs.
  • Identification with the heroics of the football team “Red Star Belgrade” (it’s fans are called delije [heroes]) and Milosovic himself. Arkan, Red Star’s paramilitary mafia boss manager, raised football tribalism and thuggery to a tool of the state.

thus portraying the Serbs as a valiant persecuted minority surrounded by a conspiracy comprising the West and their inhuman allies the muslims, Albanians, and Kosovars to support a policy of ethnic cleansing, rape and atrocity.

While the Serbian example is most clearly tribal, the same psychology of group membership has been exploited in a political or religious context from McCarthy’s Red Menace to Northern Irish religious nationalism. Likewise Bin Laden and other Islamist leaders take advantage of this psychology, creating of recent history a morality play in which the virtuous and culturally pure muslim tribes are opressed by the blasphemous, evil, and decadent West. Iconic defeats which must be avenged include the founding of Israel and the occupation of Iraq, and legendary triumphs include the bombing of the World Trade Centre and the inability of the US to capture Bin Laden in his cave in Afghanistan.

The ruling establishment in the west is quite willing to exploit group identity itself, although with a public somewhat frightened of overt nationalism since the second world war it must proceed more cautiously. Most conservative western leaders therefore engage in dog whistle politics – they pay lip service to cultural sensitivity whilst enacting xenophobic and discriminatory policies.

Deliberately inflaming tribal group behaviour for political gain seems to involve the following strategies:

  1. Exaggerated reverence for festivals, national days, war memorials, and iconic historical events.
  2. Intolerance of criticism or even analysis of national symbols, society, or history.
  3. Adopting a jingoistic and simplistic view of foreign policy and world affairs.
  4. Generating a climate of fear and insecurity, blamed on an external enemy.
  5. Militaristic posturing which reinforces nationalism at home and increases international tension and mistrust.
  6. Repeated focus on the evil acts of the degenerate enemy, especially those which form the iconic defeats of “our” tribe.

It’s easy to see how these strategies take advantage of and reinforce the first three elements of tribal psychology mentioned above: grandiose tribal self image, tribal shadow, group polarization. The conditions created by these strategies encourage group think directly and by raising the stakes. They provide a climate where the group will tolerate extreme measures to enforce group think as well as construing even minor transgressions or criticism as sedition.

The years since 2001 have provided such a clear example of this approach to politics that it seems almost trite to lay out the six points above. I could just as well have copied a speech of George Bush’s, John Howard’s, or any of the Islamist leaders of the Arab world. On the other hand things were very similar before the second world war, in Rwanda in 1994 (except that there one side held all the power and the other side kept quiet), and probably before and during most tribal and national conflicts, pogroms, religious crusades, ethnic cleansings and so on throughout history.

It has been shown that a person’s approach to a situation changes according to whether that person believes that he or she is at that moment acting on behalf of a group or as an individual. The classic example is of Palestinian and Israeli youths, on a radio station’s talk show. When interviewed as private individuals they expressed far more moderate views about the situation in Gaza and the possibility of reconciliation than they did when interviewed as representatives of their communities.

I draw the following conclusions from all this:

  • Tribal group environments have been important in the evolution of the underpinnings of human psychology, and for that reason people are powerfully influenced by factors which reinforce group identity.
  • Identification with a group polarizes divisions between the group and a category of others who form the group’s enemies.
  • Individuals are inclined to conform their thinking to that of the group, even against their personal self interest.
  • Leaders understand how to take advantage of this psychology with jingoistic militaristic posturing and celebration of romanticised historical icons both of victory and defeat. This creates a narrative for the group which engenders heightened levels of polarization and group think.

Where this process may have been an advantage to the survival of a tribe or the individuals which made up that tribe, it is clearly not in the interests of the individuals in the modern world. For that reason it is essential that individuals become aware of this psychology and insist that politicians refrain from exploiting it.

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5 Responses to The psychology of tribes

  1. Pingback: Writings on the wall » Blog Archive » Meme systems and category mistakes

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  3. prem says:

    I think we also need to look at tribes dont demonize other tribes so extremely, the existence of a tribe is also dependent on cooperation with other tribes and they take this into account more often

  4. Luis Howard says:

    Psychology is one of the most interesting branches of science because there are so many unknowns.,::

  5. Pingback: Social Networks and Zombie Hordes: Zombie Psychology Pt. 2 | The Psychology of Wellbeing

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