By now, even people who differ on nearly all issues seem to agree on at least one thing: American politics has become riven by tribal conflict. Tucker Carlson claims that “schools are creating tribalism in our kids.” Former President Barack Obama has warned that we risk “turning away from democratic principles in favor of tribalism and ‘might makes right.’” As the journalist George Packer, now of The Atlantic, once summarized the problem, “American politics today requires a word as primal as ‘tribe’ to get at the blind allegiances and huge passions of partisan affiliation. Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. They’re badges of identity, not of thought.” The underlying psychology of “us and them” appears grounded in deep-rooted human tendencies to carve the world into groups and discriminate in favor of one’s own.
But although the notion that group solidarity leads inevitably to prejudice, animosity, and conflict is common, it is also incorrect and potentially dangerous.
Humans do seem to possess the innate capacity to identify with members of their own groups. People in every culture share the same propensity to form coalitions. This tendency is what the anthropologist Donald Brown calls a “human universal.” But it does not lead inexorably toward intergroup conflict. “Groupishness”—a term some researchers use to describe humans’ tendency to identify with social groups—can be the source of a much wider repertoire of actions, including cooperation, altruism, embracing diversity, and helping people radically different from ourselves.
In our new book, the two of us argue that, to explain collective behavior, researchers and commentators must distinguish between two key concepts: how strongly members identify with their group and its norms. Some members of the same group, for example, often feel a stronger sense of connection to the collective than others. Holiday Catholics are less committed than worshippers who attend every Mass. Zealous sports fans attend every home game and despise fickle supporters who pay attention only when their team makes the playoffs.
Members who strongly identify with a group generally conform more to its norms. But those norms vary dramatically. For every hate group, another group, such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, exists that is committed to helping others. And the more deeply members identify with the latter, the more likely they are to help people different from themselves—even at significant personal cost. Recognizing that collective norms can be either positive or negative is a key to understanding why and when tribalism occurs. It also suggests how different groups can find common ground.
When people use the term tribalism, they are usually aiming to capture a toxic dynamic in collective life, such as the one that characterizes much of contemporary American politics. But what happens between …….