Territoriality, Not Tribalism

Tribalism is based on unconscious territoriality, not values.

Posted Feb 23, 2020

It has become fashionable to blame our problems on tribalism, defined as a group of people bound together by a common ideology. Members are, at best, indifferent to alternative views or, at worst, see them as evil and requiring opposition. The proposed solution is usually to consciously embrace a higher set of values. If only we could transcend narrow tribal thinking, see one another as members of a sort of meta-tribe to which we all belong while, at the same time, embracing the diversity of the subgroups within this meta-tribe, all would be well. Advocates have applied this thinking to political movements, religions, and cultural beliefs. But tribalism sits atop something more primal, biological, and unconscious, namely territoriality.

When a pride of lions encounters another pride, they do not share experiences and resources. When a pack of wolves encounters another pack, they do not join in a mutual howl. When a group of our closest biological relatives, chimpanzees, meets another such group, they do not discuss codes of conduct. Their ideologies, if we want to call them that, are identical. Yet, they fight, sometimes to the death. They do not fight because they lack a mutually agreed-upon set of values. They do not fight because of cultural or superficial physical differences. They fight, without conscious thought or reflection, over resources. One group has to go or neither will survive. 

What is true of lions, wolves, and chimpanzees is also true of humans. Humans evolved during the Pleistocene era to live in small, family-oriented groups (like lions, wolves, and chimpanzees). Cooperation increased their chances of survival and was therefore naturally selected by evolution. Since resources were scarce, these groups had to be limited in size. Newly arriving conspecifics endangered the delicate ecological balance that kept the group alive and thriving. They were therefore treated as an invasion force. In the ensuing battle, the defeated group was driven off and the victorious group secured the resources. The losing group had to find resources elsewhere or displace another group with resources. Or die.

We no longer live in the Pleistocene era, but we retain our emotional and psychological Pleistocene baggage. We act, think, and feel as though we live at a subsistence level and must protect our resources at all costs. To fail to do so feels as though it will result in destruction and death. It’s us against them. 

Since we have advanced in our methods of fighting for resources and have expanded the territories containing these resources, we can wage these battles on a much larger scale, with much more deadly results. We call this “war.” War is always us against them and always about territory and resources. Either we are trying to take the territory and resources of others or they are trying to take ours. Cultural and ideological rationales are a gloss on this.

War is not constant. Social groups can live in peace as long as they are not threatened and have the resources they need, but the drive to protect resources and drive out others is constant. So is the drive to gain more resources.

When there is not a natural "us" and "them" division, we create artificial ones. For example, we root for “local” teams. We have “home” and “away” games. We are advantaged at home (the home field advantage) because we are defending our home turf. I am a Yankee fan; I grew up in the Bronx, where the Yankees play. They are “my” team. I and other fans often say “us” when referring to the Yankees, as though we played with them. The Red Sox are “them.” But I don’t know any Yankees. My survival does not depend upon their success. Yet I almost feel as though it does. I am elated when they win and deflated when they lose. I am not alone, tens of thousands show up to watch these contests. Millions more follow on the media. Virtually none of us has a real stake in the outcome. Yet, we feel as though we do. This is a relatively harmless alternative to war or the Pleistocene battles of yore. 

It doesn’t stop there. We have local personal and geographic ways of creating us and them. I am from New York, specifically from New York City. That is “us” to me. People from Iowa are from the Midwest. People from South Carolina are from the south. I am “them” to those individuals and they are “us” to themselves. When this does not suffice, we look for other ways to separate us from them. These include race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, language, and political affiliation. They seem different but all are offshoots of the same dynamic. But now it is not harmless, healthy, or adaptive. 

If you follow us-and-them arguments to their roots, you will always find them centering around resources and territory. Political differences are not simply disagreements. The other side is threatening our resources and survival. They are evil. They must be stopped. If you are on the right, the theme is that people are entitled to the resources they worked so hard to earn. Others want to take them away and must be stopped. Even so-called value issues revolve around this theme. Gay rights are purported to threaten marriage, which threatens families, which threatens "us." Unodocumented immigrants supposedly want to take our jobs and replace us, so they must not be allowed to invade our territory. 

If you are on the left, the theme is that we must fight to reclaim our resources. The ruling class (them) wants to keep all of the resources for themselves and deprive us of them. The tax system unfairly advantages the wealthy (them). They wish to destroy the middle class and create a two-tier system of haves and have nots with “them” controlling the resources and “us” reduced to bare subsistence. They want health care for themselves (a resource) so that they can thrive while we wither.

Politicians and the media routinely state that people vote their pocketbooks; other issues are secondary. What they are saying, without realizing it, is that it is about territory and resources. 

So what to do? An overarching value system might be helpful but it is not enough. We need to recognize that we are a territorial species and find adaptive ways to deal with it. Sports and friendly regional rivalries will only take us so far. Decades ago, Muzafer Sherif maintained that group conflict was about resources, although he did not link it to the unconscious or to natural selection. But he did offer a way of dealing with it that does not involve appeals to rationality or a higher purpose. He created conflict between two groups of ideologically similar boys. He then set up situations that required them to cooperate to obtain resources (water in one case, food in another). This reduced the hostility between the groups.

The lesson is that if we want to reduce the us versus them pandemic that afflicts us, we would do well to find a legitimate, concrete, threat to resources, which is best dealt with through cooperation. Food, water, air, living space, and the welfare of our families will always trump higher moral values. That is probably where we should look for solutions.


Weinberger, J., & Stoycheva, V.  (2020).  The unconscious:  Theory, research and clinical implications.  NY:  Guilford Press.

Chua, A.  (2018).  Political Tribes:  Group instinct and the fate of nations.  NY:  Bloomsbury.

Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1988). The Robbers Cave experiment: Intergroup conflict and cooperation  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.