Does Tribal Identity Really Do You Any Good Today?

Tribalism may have been vital in the Pleistocene Age, but it is now out of date.

Posted Feb 15, 2020

Daniel Stuhlpfarrer/Pixabay
Source: Daniel Stuhlpfarrer/Pixabay

You're incredibly lucky. As a human, you've got a brain that gives you more flexibility than any other animal on the planet has. You can be calm and thoughtful when you need to be, or you can be hostile and reflexive when you allow your "lizard brain" to take control. You actually get to choose. So I'm wondering why we happily relinquish so much control to the most primitive and clueless parts of our nervous system.

There's nothing more "Cavemanish" than tribal hostility, and it seems to be on the rise today. Sorry to say, but we can't blame Donald Trump for all of it. He may offer the bait, but we don't have to take it.

I used to play a game with students in my Evolutionary Psychology class. At the start of the course, I would ask them, "Who are you?" I was amazed at how many answered the question by defining themselves in terms of some group or tribal affiliation. It was rare for somebody to keep it personal and say, for example, "My name is Sandra Johnson, and I'm a 21-year-old psychology student. I like to take pictures, and I play the guitar." What was far more common were answers like, "I'm a woman," or "I'm a Canadian," or "I'm a Christian."

In other words, here are the large groups to which I belong. Forget about me or what's unique about me. Here are my tribal affiliations. These are the most important things about my identity.

It was really disappointing, even frustrating, to see that so much of an individual's identity depended upon group membership. Here was a group of bright, young university students who often fell back on tribal membership to define themselves. Can it be that beyond their tribe, there was little worth sharing? They easily focused on being one of 38 million Canadians, or one of approximately four billion women on Earth, as if that's the most important thing we can know about them.

Once we've narrowed you down to one of four billion female humans living on the planet, what have we really learned about you? Is that the extent of your identity? Knowing that you have a vagina is hardly definitive.

Likewise, knowing that you are a Canadian or an American merely tells me where your mother happened to be when she gave birth to you. Or perhaps that your parents chose to immigrate to a different landmass in order to achieve better living conditions. In either case, it hardly provides information about you, per se, which is what my question was about.

Why is it so comforting to seek tribal identity? Is it riskier or less fulfilling for you to tell me about yourself rather than others you identify with? It's true if you tell me that your name is Barbara or Jason, you haven't told me who'd have your back in a fight. That is, of course, one advantage of choosing a tribe. You assume you can count on others who share that identity to back you up or protect you. That comic t-shirt said it all: "You mess with me, you mess with the whole trailer park."

I get that it's reassuring to be a member of an in-group. To know you share features or beliefs with others. Once you say "I'm a Christian," or "I'm from Kansas," you immediately align yourself with others who aren't Jewish or from Nebraska. But there's a problem with all of this, and it's a huge one. Even though it rarely gets stated, I think we should own up to it.

As cozy as in-group membership may be, it has a dark side. The existence of any in-group implies a corresponding out-group. That's where the fun ends.

By proclaiming membership in an in-group, you have confirmed that there are people unlike you, and you do not have their backs in a fight. In fact, you may not be so thrilled about them altogether. By definition, they are outsiders, and we all know how outsiders get treated

Not being a member of the in-group can be a pretty nasty business. It can justify mistreatment, ostracism, and violence. Do you remember how it was in high school? You're much more likely to aggress against or marginalize an outsider than someone in your safe little in-group.

But keep in mind: It is just a matter of time until those outsiders have taken enough, and they form their own tribe. American social history from the past century offers vivid examples of this.

When I played this "identity" game with my Evolutionary Psych students, it became obvious (and quite cringeworthy) that for every in-group, there was a readily identifiable out-group. These days, saying "I am a Democrat" typically implies, "Damn Republicans!" Saying "I am a Southerner" can imply "Damn Yankees!" Up here, saying "I am a Canadian" can imply "Damn Americans!" We know that all too often, "I am a woman" can imply "Damn men." "I am a Christian" can imply "Damn Jews" or "Damn Muslims" or "Damn atheists."

Tribalism is a pretty broad program in our Pleistocene-era brains. The specifics may look different depending upon the time and place, but the feelings and impulses remain the same. Some 60 years ago, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks had a comedy routine in which they interviewed a caveman, who told them about the first national anthem and performed a rousing version of "Let them all go to hell, except Cave 76."

Reiner and Brooks were not psychologists or historians, but their comedy routine expresses the essence of this article. We are reflexively guided by in-group/out-group distinctions. Those differences are strong enough to stir tribal loyalties, which do not require much gasoline to ignite into fires of hatred and violence. 

On the very day you are reading this article, can you estimate how many of your fellow humans will have been wounded or killed in the name of some tribal loyalty? A bomb in a shopping mall, an aircraft carrying innocent people shot down… The motives may have been political, or religious, or geographical, but really, who cares? At the end of the day, that difference in viewpoint or skin color resulted in the death or mutilation of other humans.

Arguably, humans are the only tribe you should identify with. In my view, sub-categories (nation, race, religion) have only gotten us in trouble. Can you imagine the overnight change in the world if we all identified with being human and left it at that? The clearest statement of that viewpoint in our lifetime is John Lennon's song "Imagine."

It is not fashionable to argue against patriotism. The most recent U.S. State of the Union Address resounded to chants of "USA! USA!" That kind of patriotism, wherever practiced, celebrates the preservation of the in-group. It is a field day for tribal hatred and war.

Is there any reason to believe that things will change in our lifetimes? If you believe it will, what will have made the difference? Do you believe that electing "peaceful," perhaps female leaders will alter our brain architecture or rewire primitive tribal modules? If not, then what might result in such a fundamental change in human behavior? 

If you believe the United States is a civilized country, think of how easily that veneer of civilization can be stripped away by a disagreement in a bar on Saturday night about football or politics. The word "Trump" spoken with the wrong intonation might be sufficient to trigger those parts of our "lizard brain" we all come equipped with. These are tribal conflicts. Political disagreement has become a blood sport in America where once it was the stuff of discussion and debate.

I've heard it argued that brawling over politics is more "honest." Why is that? It's true that our amygdala, a tiny brain structure that's responsible for much of our aggression and rage, is much older than our cerebral cortex, where calm discussion originates. Those newer parts of our brain took millions of years to evolve, and they distinguish us from most other animal life on the planet.

Many other animals can only hit when they get angry. We get to choose: We can hit, or we can reason. Those tribal circuits are also ancient. What's so noble about turning control over to the most primitive parts of our brain? As humans, we have a newer option. Why not use it proudly?


Davis, H. (2009). Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World. New York: Prometheus Books.

Lennon, J. (1971). Imagine. Apple Records 1840.