Denying the Tribe

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“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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

See more

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.

8 responses

  1. Interesting post.

    Personally I think hbd chick*, Jayman and others have made a good case of clannishness/tribalism being a matter of long term inbreeding and the selective pressure for parochial altruism that this no doubt creates. According to this theory the WEIRD people would be the outbred Northwest Europeans and their descendants. They typically display individualism and creativity but also civic-mindedness, tolerance and tragically an unability to defend themselves against exploitation from tribal immigrants. As someone who voted for a nationalist eurosceptic party, I would like to say that I did that to defend our WEIRDness against the influx of clannish/tribal people. This is not just me – Geert Wilders PVV advocate protective legislation for Jews and the LGBT community. Eastern European nationalist parties seem more tribal though.

    America is extreme in partly other respects, like impulsivity, sensation seeking, most likely because that would be traits of those who would risk everything to emigrate in the early days. But that’s a whole different idea of WEIRDness since for instance Scandinavians have very little of these traits and yet aren’t the least tribal.

  2. Great post!

    Staffan’s comments are quite key. NW Euros generally have weak tribal instincts due to the effects of their history of outbreeding. They generally are socially atomized and view each person as independent individuals. Some, however, like the Scandinavians, seem to have went down a path somewhat similar to the Japanese in that they emphasize the collective identity (or individual allegiance to the collective). This may just be outbred corporatism on steroids. But, as Staffan also noted, when it comes to the NW Euro daughter nations, self-sorting and founder effects were also extremely important.

    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.

    One quibble. Culture is itself a product of evolution. Any worthy evolutionary theory must explain culture and the differences in such across the world.

    • It seems more common among conservatives but liberals have the tendency too. You may have seen this clip on liberal tribalism before but it’s really funny,

  3. As a member of the Manosphere in good standing, I’ll offer a highly speculative brain dump about male social relations and how they relate to tribalism (cribbed mostly from non-scientific ‘sphere writers like Jack Donovan and Ian Ironwood):

    The first thing to observe – males tend to fall naturally into task-based hierarchies during any undertaking. I’d say being part of a hierarchy, and knowing where you stand in that hierarchy, is a pretty deep male need. For some, but not all, being at the top is important. But these hierarchies are fluid and reorganize themselves when confronted with different tasks. (Yes, women do it differently – look up “crab basket” on google scholar). These task-based hierarchies are decided by *competition*. Bonding rituals related to inter-group conflict would serve to solidify the hierarchy for the task of fighting – a fighting group strongly unified under a leader will almost certainly do better.

    The presence of females causes competition for alpha status to become more fierce – since there a mating opportunity present! – and so destabilizes the hierarchy.

    There is an obvious “free-rider” problem in tribal conflict – fighting is a risky business, and one could certainly incur less risk by fighting less courageously. If all the members of the group do this, your group loses. So it is beneficial for cowardice to be shameful. Since shame is related to one’s emotional connection with others, it’s beneficial for men participating in combat to be strongly emotionally bonded to one another, so as to make cowardice more shameful.

    Male initiation rites are often painful – there is a “costly signaling” explanation for this. Around the time I got into the manosphere and starting taking martial arts, I felt a strong urge to put myself through some sort of painful ordeal. This made me think the purpose of painful initiation rites were to discover how you react, and how you can learn to handle painful experiences in a safe environment. This would prepare you to handle pain in much more dangerous situations like hunting or fighting – when it’s important not to be distracted by it.

    By way of an admittedly clumsy metaphor, any time (in, say, audio or computer applications) you want two pieces of equipment to talk to each other, you need a “clock source” – a common frequency which unifies them to prevent transmission errors. These symbols act as a “clock source” for male brains, which allows them to better act in concert, which means your tribe wins. Just as the frequency of the clock source is arbitrarily chosen, the symbols which we rally around are also arbitrary – which is why they seem silly to the out-group.

    The manosphere is a tribe that has rallied around “masculinity” as a symbol – which is I guess a little strange.

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  6. I think we need to understand non-tribalism first (from an external aspect!), since tribalism is the default state of humanity and most of our primate cousins. When did non-tribalism begin? The cosmpolitan ancient empires, such as Rome? Medieval Manoralism in north-west Europe? How did such an odd system thrive for so long? Will it continue and expand globally, as Pinker seems to expect, or is it non-viable in the face of modern mass population movements?

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