“When I asked him, fifty-three years after the event, “Mr. Lucas, why did you jump on those grenades?” he did not hesitate with his answer: “To save my buddies.”
― James D. Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers
Sunni rebels fight a sectarian war across the Middle East. In Texas, gun lovers stockpile their weapons. In Europe, white nationalist, right-wing “euro-sceptic” parties surge at the polls. These groups are held together by something they share in common: it’s called male tribalism.
Western psychology (which is really American psychology) has had difficulty explaining what drives young men to sacrifice their lives for each other, and for their tribe, since its inception. Even evolutionary psychology, which has developed frameworks for understanding parochial altruism, and within-group dynamics, has largely avoided empirical investigation into the relationship between maleness, tribal culture, and inter-group conflict. The Male-Warrior Hypothesis (2012) takes a step in the right direction, but it still remains mute on the relationship between culture and tribal identity.
The discipline of psychology has reified the Northern American “ideal” of personhood, a person who is rational, materialistic, analytic, self-determining, and not tied down by communal obligations or allegiances. In 2010, cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan exposed the extent of this bias in their paper called “The Weirdest People in the World?” The article shattered psychology’s greatest implicit assumption: that people from Western cultures are representative of all people throughout the globe. (By “weird” they meant both unusual as well as Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic). Dozens of studies have now shown that people from Western, compared to non-Western cultures, think differently. And even among Western cultures, North-American people stand out as being the most different, the “weirdest” of all. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt summarises Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s key finding like this:
The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. (p. 96).
In other words, Western psychology views people as separate units. Even Australian culture, which is Western, rich and democratic, is less competitive and less hyper-individualistic compared to that of the US. (While for Americans freedom is sacrosanct, in Australia egalitarianism and fairness is prized above liberty, for most people).
Inter-group conflict, specifically male groups fighting other male groups, is something that happens everywhere in every culture, and has all throughout history – it qualifies as a “human universal”. But it is also a cultural construct. The symbols and values that groups of people organise themselves around, vary from group to group. They might be religious symbols, landmarks, emblems of national history or football teams. The symbols change, yet the tribalism remains the same.
Explanations for tribalism from the perspective of evolutionary psychology have typically focused on signaling theory and reproductive opportunities for individuals. Natural and sexual selection produces males with evolved “warrior” abilities because the rewards equate to fitness payoffs. But such explanations do not account for the bonding rituals that take place between males during tribal activities. Or the fact that more men than women watch sport. They do not explain why women are often excluded from tribes, and what the importance and function of male loyalty is – (what we in Australia call “mateship”).
Explanations for such phenomena must incorporate culture. A holistic explanation needs to take a holistic approach, with multiple levels of analysis, from the biological and evolutionary to the social and symbolic.
The most extreme form of tribalism manifests itself in terrorism. Psychologists have struggled to explain the psychology of terrorists, and no psychopathological profile exists which explains terrorist behaviour.
While personality disorder, poverty and extreme hardship are not predictive of terrorist activity, what researchers have called “heightened coalitional commitment” is. In 2008 Ginges, Hansen and Norenzayan published a paper which demonstrated that Palestinian Muslims who attended mosque, most frequently, had the highest levels of support, for the most extreme forms of parochial altruism: suicide attacks. Frequency of prayer was not predictive. Likewise, priming synagogue attendance (but not frequency of prayer) for Jewish Israelis, predicted the likelihood that they would find a suicide attack carried out against Palestinians to be “extremely heroic”.
If we want to understand the motivations of Islamist jihadists, European white nationalists, or anti-government gun-nuts, we need to understand tribalism. If we deny the pull of the tribe, and only focus on its negative consequences, we set the stage for it to flourish in the most anti-social and destructive of ways.
Many of us think that tribalism is at an all-time low, and most likely it is. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature describes how violence has drastically reduced, in large part, due to the suppression of tribalism throughout the world. Yet tribalism is still with us. Right now it is flourishing in the Middle East, with a globalised terror organization wreaking havoc throughout Iraq. Online, tribalism flourishes in the “manosphere”, “Neoreaction” and “Dark Enlightenment” movements.
Despite how civilized and peaceful we become, we can be sure that male tribalism will find a way.
Ginges, J., Hansen, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2009). Religion and support for suicide attacks.
Psychological science, 20(2), 224-230.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.
Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological review, 98(2), 224.