Here's Why Tribalism Trumps Truth

We like to think that we are reasonable, but our politics show otherwise.

Posted Sep 11, 2020

Note: This is the fifth blog post in a series about how our views of truth and reality contribute to some of the problems we experience as individuals and as a society. I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive these problems in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

"Exploiting people's emotions of fear, envy, and anxiety is not hope, it's not change, it's partisanship. We don't need partisanship. We don't need demagoguery, we need solutions."
—Paul Ryan, Republican, Former Speaker of the House

gguy44/iStock
Source: gguy44/iStock

With a monumental election looming, we are feeling the heat. Yard signs claiming allegiance to different parties and candidates are springing up across America. It's not our imagination. Our politics have become more polarized in recent decades. Partisan differences on a number of issues such as COVID-19, race, abortion, guns, taxes, freedom, and religion are widening. The division within our "United" States seems to be at toxic levels. 

When we pause and reflect, we can even feel it. For instance, if you are a liberal, and you see someone wearing a MAGA hat, you probably will feel some visceral reaction of revulsion, contempt, or disdain. If you are Republican, you might experience similar feelings when you see a Biden/Harris or "COEXIST" yard sign or bumper sticker. Conversely, you might feel some level of warmth or kinship for those who wear the same hat, so to speak. 

To some degree, each side claims they are "right" and the other side is "wrong." The level of hatred that is playing out, especially on social media, is distressing. Every time we think it can't get any worse, it does! On another level, each side is perplexed at how the other side could be so ignorant or idiotic. I mean, why can't the other side see the error of their ways? Can't they see reality and just admit they are wrong?

Tribal Truth

Here's the problem. We don't see reality. As discussed in my previous post in this series, fitness beats reality. That is, we evolved to survive, not to see reality. Thus, our view of reality, of what is true, is filtered through a "survival" lens.

As social creatures, what has helped us survive and thrive over the course of hundreds of thousands of years is being part of a cohesive tribe. Being part of a functional tribe meant life, but a dysfunctional tribe, or being cast out from a tribe, meant death. Thus, our view of reality is filtered through a kind of in-group or tribal bias because being part of that tribe, historically, was necessary for our survival. Quite naturally then, we favor our own tribe. There is a large body of literature indicating that we tend to show in-group favoritism, including biases about truth, even when group assignment is random and meaningless. 

The Rider and the Elephant

"All life's a jest still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."
—From the song, "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel

We'd like to think that our political positions are based on objective truths but, sadly, that's far from the truth. As social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, our morality, politics, and values are based more on sentiments than reason. He likens the relationship between our reasoning and sentiments to a rider on an elephant with the rider being our reasoning and the elephant being our sentiments. In general, it is the elephant, our sentiments, in charge. The rider, our reasoning, is along for the ride. 

The rider doesn't have much control over the elephant. It's more often the case that the elephant decides to lumber in a particular direction and the rider, after the fact (post hoc), concocts some reasons to justify why the elephant has turned. "Ah, yeah, well I decided to steer the elephant over toward... that tree over there because... ah, yeah, well, the tree might have bananas, and, um, I think this big fella is hungry. Yeah, that's the ticket!" 

Our confirmation bias kicks in such that we cherry-pick information to support what we already have decided is true and discount contradictory information. This is usually just below our conscious awareness. When it comes to supporting our values, morals, and political positions, our view of the "truth" is often a tribal allegiance in disguise. As Haidt observes, morality "binds and blinds." That is, our moral sentiments bind us to our group or tribe and blind us to information that contradicts our sentiments.

Sticking to Our Guns

"A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."
—Dale Carnegie, from the book How to Win Friends and Influence People

Our tribal nature explains why people are curiously resistant to attempts to change their moral and political views, even when confronted by damning information. Attempts to change others' views can often result in a backfire effect. Thus, when someone who holds a particular view is confronted with contradictory data, it will often strengthen their original view. How annoying is that?

“To your common sense firm arguments, I won't listen to your voice of reason trying to change my mind. I mind my feelings and not your words. Didn't you notice I'm so headstrong even when I know I'm wrong?”
—From the song, "Headstrong," by 10,000 Maniacs

If we step back a bit, we can see that we aren't merely pressing these "other" tribal members to change their beliefs. We are actually asking them to switch tribes. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't switch tribes. For our ancient ancestors, leaving the tribe meant death. Thus, the motivation to distort reality in a way that favors our tribe is incredibly strong, often as if our very lives were on the line.

The Takeaway?

From one viewpoint, it seems irrational that people's political positions would be so impervious to contradictory information. That's because our morals, values, and political positions are not based on reason in the first place. We don't experience the world in an objective fashion. Fitness (our survival) beats reality. Our survival, from an evolutionary standpoint, has been based on our ability to stay connected with our tribe. Tribalism trumps truth because our survival, historically, has depended upon it. 

Here's the reality though. Although Donald Trump is a polarizing figure, our partisan differences aren't all about him. Republicans may be biased to view Trump in a favorable light no matter what evidence is to the contrary. Yet if they are, Democrats are subject to these same biases. This is something many Democrats don't care to hear or admit. Our tribal biases apply equally to Democrats and Republicans.

You might be thinking, "Well, other people are biased but my beliefs are based on sound reasoning!" In my next blog post, I have a little quiz to assess our tribal bias as well as different way to view our political loyalties. Please join me for my next blog post in this series and be ready to put yourself to the test.