Tribalism in Politics
Cheering for everything your side says until you learn the other side said it.
Posted Jun 18, 2018
A high school valedictorian recently gave a graduation speech in which he shared an inspirational quote:
“Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
The student attributed the quote to a beloved political figure. The audience cheered.
What appeared to happen is called “reactive devaluation.” Once we discover it was the other side who said or supports something, then we withdraw or withhold our support. It doesn’t seem to matter what was said or proposed (Ross & Stillinger, 1991).
In the valedictorian story, the cheered political figure was Donald Trump. The true source of the inspirational quote was Barack Obama. The quote wasn’t so inspirational anymore. Maybe it never was.
It’s not about the quote. It’s the quotee.
Reflecting back on his years in the Senate while Obama was president, Republican George Voinovich acknowledged that “if he [Obama] was for it” then “we had to be against it” (Grunwald, 2012).
Both conservatives and liberals show this bias, not that it’s every conservative and liberal. A 2003 study titled “Party over Policy” showed that liberal college students changed their tune about a generous welfare policy when they were told it was supported by congressional Republicans but not Democrats (Cohen, 2003).
Not that conservatives and liberals show this group-centric bias equally. Conservatives tend to be more group-centric on average, which can have pros and cons (Kruglanski et al., 2006).
Research has also shown bipartisan bias. When Ronald Reagan was president, American participants supported a supposed Reagan proposal for USSR nuclear disarmament, but not when the same exact proposal was attributed to Mikhail Gorbachev. Israeli participants supported an actual Israeli-based peace proposal until they were told the proposal came from Palestinians. And so on (Maoz et al., 2002).
This general topic is also called tribalism, which has been spiking in American politics. Some politicians may be stoking it, but there are multiple reasons we engage in it.
Maybe after years or decades of mistreatment by the other side, we are understandably suspicious of anything they say. It may be simple conditioning.
Maybe we don’t want to admit that the other side has a good idea because we don’t want to be criticized or rejected by our own people. This is part of groupthink. In Congress, politicians don’t want to be primaried out of their next election.
Maybe we can’t admit the other side has a good idea because of our own egos, especially if we have publicly criticized the other side and rallied for our side. When it comes to ego protection, it’s easy to misperceive or reinterpret a good idea as bad.
Maybe a politician or media outlet on our side has demonized the other side. Learning that a demon is behind a proposal would understandably make us less enthusiastic. This is part of the ad hominem fallacy—devaluing an argument not on its merits but because of perceived negative qualities of those who proposed it.
Maybe we can’t admit the other side has a good idea because it would feel like we’re giving in to the enemy. After all the unforgivable wrongs committed by the other side, it might feel unfair or unjust to give them any credit, even if they’re doing the right thing in the moment.
The bottom line is that, for largely psychological reasons, we might lie to others or ourselves about the value of a proposal if it came from our sworn enemies.
Learning about tribalism and reactive devaluation has a chance to reduce this bias (Nasie, 2014). Aside from the knowledge itself, it can be humbling to see your fellow liberals or conservatives twist and distort their perceptions so hypocritically. Such hypocrisy in your own group can be embarrassing and an ego threat. This threat might be reduced if you yourself try to see things in more clear-sighted or logical ways. Look beyond who made the proposal. Prove that you’re not like the others in your group.
Learning about logical fallacies, like the ad hominem fallacy, can more directly help to reduce bias. I hope to devote at least one blog post to logic training. One challenge here is that most of us think we’re already logical and the other side is always irrational. It’s part of what’s called naïve realism, although in some cases, of course, the other side really is screwed up (Stalder, 2018).
I hate to say it, given how angry and disgusted we can get at the other side, but it might help to try to find something, however small, to like or compliment in the other side. That might offset the demonizing if nothing else.
Put another way, if you have some friends on Facebook who are from the other political side, go ahead and disagree when they talk policy or politics, but you can still click “like” on their cute dog posts. It’s just a thumbs-up icon. Most people on the other side are probably not all bad, but I do understand if you can’t bring yourself to click “like.”
Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Party over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85 (2003): 808–22.
Michael Grunwald, “The Party of No: New Details on the GOP Plot to Obstruct Obama,” Time, August 23, 2012, http://swampland.time.com/2012/08/23/the-party-of-no-new-details-on-the-gop-plot-to-obstruct-Obama/
Arie W. Kruglanski et al., “Groups as Epistemic Providers: Need for Closure and the Unfolding of Group Centrism,” Psychological Review 113 (2006): 84–100.
Ifat Maoz et al., “Reactive Devaluation of an ‘Israeli’ vs. ‘Palestinian’ Peace Proposal,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 46 (2002): 515–46.
Meytal Nasie et al., “Overcoming the Barrier of Narrative Adherence in Conflicts Through Awareness of the Psychological Bias of Naive Realism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 (2014): 1543–56.
Thomas Novelly, “Crowd Cheers When Valedictorian Quotes Trump. Then Reveals It Was Obama,” USA Today, June 3, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/06/03/kentucky-valedictorian-quotes-trump-then-reveals-obama/667758002/.
Less Ross and Constance Stillinger, “Barriers to Conflict Resolution,” Negotiation Journal 7 (1991): 389–404.
Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).