The legacy of tribalism

From “The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy” by Christopher Beem

All these innate features of human behavior combine to create a very formidable predisposition. All of us seek out those with whom we are comfortable, those who are like us and with whom we share some aspect of our identity. We all instinctively categorize ourselves and the people we interact with into groups, into us and them.

Part of the legacy of tribalism is that we want fellow members (and by extension, ourselves) to succeed and to prevail over those tribes to which we do not belong. This desire is why people follow and enjoy sports. We want our team/tribe to win, and the deeper our investment, the greater our desire. Isabel Duarte and her colleagues showed Portuguese football fans videos of their team’s successes and defeats while their brains were being scanned by an MRI machine, which identifies parts of the brain that are activated during different tasks. Those parts of the brain showing increased activity suggest (but of course do not prove) that our tribal attachments are reinforced by chemicals in the brain: “Tribal love…represents a strong motivational state.” In other words, it’s not simply that we want our tribe to win. It’s that when our tribe does win, we receive feel-good chemicals, and when we lose, the brain releases chemicals that make us feel bad.

Fanaticism for a sports team might well represent an undue investment of time, energy, money and (especially) emotion. (I would certainly admit as much for me.) But except for rare instances, like riots after a championship or soccer hooliganism, manifestations of our tribal instincts are basically harmless. The same holds true for those claiming a long-standing ethnic heritage or for fans of an entertainer or product. We take pleasure in the connection, in the feeling of belonging, but we also recognize that it doesn’t matter much. Walking out of Lambeau Field (home of the Green Bay Packers) decked out in my Chicago Bears regalia, I had to endure chants of “The Bears still suck.” I didn’t like it – not least because it was not wrong – but I  never worried about my safety. In fact, in good Cheesehead fashion, when people did strike up a conversation, they welcomed me to Green Bay. So yes, Packers fans and Bears fans make up competing tribes, but as with most cases, trial “warfare” goes no further than a snarky chant.

Yet even at its most benign, there is more to tribalism. Tribalism means favoritism, and favoritism implies unfairness. That unfairness is all the more perilous because it is unconscious.