Ryan Watts: Tribalism

In an essay written at the end of World War II, George Orwell wrote, “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. . . . .”1

Orwell is referring to to tribalism as it often is demonstrated in our cultures.

Why are Human’s Tribalistic?

Humans cannot survive without group membership.

A tribe.

Babies and small children are not able to take care of themselves for years, for example 2. Later, cooperative groups or coalitions are more likely to survive. Those coalitions who survive, often do so by taking resources from opposing coalitions.

Acts that demonstrate commitment to a coalition and “ostracize” the opposition are often rewarded 4. Any other behavior is seen as undesirable.

And so….we have tribalism.

When is Tribalism Bad?

Scientists have noted that people are highly likely to go along with the herd. This is often in contradiction to what they may actually believe.

The holocaust is an obvious example.


Very, bad.
“What you say becomes irrelevant as long as you are wearing the right uniform, or speaking the right language, or wearing the right religious symbol.“ 3 The group you appear to be in, creates a lens for how you are perceived by others.
Due to its primal roots, tribalism is closely tied to fear. As a result, when we are emotional, we are less logical. The tribal ‘instincts’ that cause racism and nationalism cause us to act on a more primitive, less evolved and more animal level 5.

Racism is Tribalism

Racism has for dimension.

  1. One racial group exercises its power to the persistent disadvantage of the subordinate group.
  2. Belief in the superior in–group and the inferiority of the out–group.
  3. Racism is expressed by individuals, is critically influenced by institutions, and deeply embedded in the entire culture.
  4. Racism contributes directly and indirectly to persistent racial inequality 6.

What Can We Do?

First, know that that these tribal ‘instincts ‘ are emotionally based. When we are experiencing anxiety and fear, we tend to look for threats real or imagined. These responses of anxiety and fear are often no longer adaptive 7.
What is really disappointing to me, is that while humanity has a common enemy (COVID-19) we have instead chosen to fight each other. COVID-19 should have aligned humanity towards protecting each other from getting sick. Instead, it is a political finger pointing exercise.

The current protests on the murder of George Floyd should align humanity towards proper policing in America. Once again, we retreat to our tribes and finger point.

One Tribe

Social psychology offers a crucial insight to address this problem. “We can emotionally attach to a global identity with as much fervor as a national one. The core principle of identity formation remains the same: we imbue emotional significance to our membership in the group and commit loyalty to that entity” 8.


  1. A New Report Offers Insights Into Tribalism in the Age of Trump
  2. When Tribalism Goes Bad
  3. The Good and Bad of Tribalism
  4. Tribalism is Human Nature
  5. Trump, the politics of fear and racism: How our brains can be manipulated to tribalism
  6. Racism is a Psychological Bias
  7. Racism on the brain: a neuroscientist explains how the world moved right
  8. Can We Overcome Our Tribalistic Nature?

Written by Ryan Watts

Mid-level leader in a large company, who’d rather be writing. BA is Psychology, MBA concentrated in Finance – Kent State University. Interested in psychology, self-improvement, upstream thinking and making order out of chaos.

For more posts like this, please visit his blog: Who are we?

4 thoughts on “Ryan Watts: Tribalism”

  1. Excellent thought proving article. Starting out with the theory that “Humans cannot survive without group membership.”

    My theory is that tribalism, if we’re hard-wired to be tribal which i also believe we are, is not and must not be static; fluid and evolving tribalism is necessary for humans to survive. We can’t change our programming overnight, but cognitive and emotional evolution permits us to change our choice of tribal membership.

    If our “tribe” is all that lives on the planet, that would be a cognitive, emotional, and functional evolution. It might even change the realities which challenge us today like bigotry and racism.

    When humans start believing that their tribe is all the sentient and non sentient organisms in our universe, if non-sentience is actually possible, then we will have reached the higher state of being which is our destiny; if we survive getting there. LOL

    Sharing some thoughts off the top of my head, after first reading. LOL

  2. I live in a country where if you don’t align yourself to your tribe you are seen as a traitor ,people seem to favor members of their tribe even if they have never met .
    I could walk into a job interview but because am from a different tribe that the boss doesn’t belong to I don’t get the job no matter the level of qualification i have.
    Racism and tribalism are enemies of progress in the human society,as long as we are no one ,it’s always going to be a problem.


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