Jacqueline Roggenbrodt / AP

Today’s Issue:

  • Are human beings inherently tribal? In the wake of the U.S. midterms, it’s a good day to revisit the question.
  • In today’s issue, we’ll recap the argument over tribalism, or the human need to belong to exclusive groups. And we asked scholars to outline some of the most pressing questions in the field.
  • The next step requires your participation! Take the “Hidden Tribes” quiz and report back. Details below.

What We Know About Tribalism

By Caroline Kitchener

In The Atlantic’s newsroom, we’ve been talking a lot about political tribalism: how to define it, and how it affects the current state of American politics. The results of Tuesday’s midterm elections put American divisions front and center. But is tribalism a cause or a consequence of those divisions? Does subdividing the country into political tribes weaken those divisions, or harden them? In this issue, we’re kicking off an effort to come to grips with the idea of tribalism.

  • Can America be a tribe? In September, we read Political Tribes, by Amy Chua. American politics is at an impasse, Chua suggests, because Americans identify more with their racial, religious, and cultural affiliations—their “tribes”—than they do with their country. In our forums, members have questioned whether the United States as a whole has ever been a “tribe,” let alone whether it could become one. “We as a country don’t have a singular identity,” the member Greg wrote, “not when we can’t even agree on what it means to be an American!”
  • Tribalism doesn’t explain the country’s ills. “It would be naive to assert that current affairs can be solely explained by one phenomenon, including tribalism,” writes Míriam Juan-Torres, a co-author of the new study “Hidden Tribes.” She argues that the impact of tribalism on American politics is exaggerated by the media. In fact, she says, there are many Americans who are willing to meet one another in the middle, who loosely identify with various exclusive groups but are willing to move beyond them.  
  • Biology isn’t destiny. Some scholars argue that a predisposition to divide and congregate is rooted in human DNA. But Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Princeton, is not quite so pessimistic. The evolutionary evidence for humanity’s collective tribal predisposition is rooted in “questionable psychological tests and analogies to pre-hominin creatures,” he says. “As we watch what the age of Trump makes manifest, it will be fascinating to see how the story we tell ourselves about ourselves develops. That it should be as one of tribes would, I fear, be both factually mistaken and politically harmful.”
  • How much “tribalism” is really just Trumpism? “In the Donald Trump era,” wrote The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein a year ago, “is it possible for a deeply divided America to sustain any shared interest or common purpose?” While the United States has had deeply divisive leaders before, Brownstein writes, Trump is unique in his ability to “widen [the country’s] divides.” More recently, the Atlantic contributor Yascha Mounk reported on Juan-Torres’s research. Americans, he writes, “share more common ground than the daily fights on social media might suggest.”

What’s Your Political Tribe?

Juan-Torres’s “Hidden Tribes” project includes a brief quiz, which allows you to find out where you fall on the spectrum she and her fellow researchers established. As a not entirely scientific experiment, we want to know what tribes Atlantic readers are in. Take the quiz and share your results (completely anonymously, if you’d like).

Could Morality Have Evolved If Tribalism Was Hardwired?

By Allen Buchanan

Buchanan, a philosophy professor at Duke University, studies the connection between the evolutionary origins of morality and tribalism. He describes the landscape of that research.

The kind of tribalism people are now most concerned about in the United States seems to be “intrasocietal tribalism”: deep, intractable divisions between “us” and “them” among groups within society (in particular, “liberals” versus “conservatives”). In addition to popular approaches in the media that serve mainly to call attention to the problem, there are approaches that inquire about intrasocietal tribalism’s roots in human moral nature, drawing on evolutionary accounts of the origins of human morality as an adaptation to living in the harsh conditions of the Middle to Late Pleistocene, or the Ice Age. Here, there are two contrasting interpretations of the evolutionary origins of human morality:

  • Humans are morally tribalistic by nature (hardwired for tribalism). This yields the pretty pessimistic conclusion that people are stuck with tribalism.
  • Humans are not exclusively tribalistic by nature. Individuals have the capacity, under favorable conditions, to develop a more inclusive morality. Evidence favors this: Even in the ancestral environment in which human morality first evolved, some peaceful cooperation among groups existed: military alliances, long-distance trade, out-marrying practices. If humans were hardwired for tribalism, none of that would have been possible.

The problem is that there isn't a coherent approach at this point among researchers in the field. But to the extent that there is any agreement, most researchers seem to be asking: What can an understanding of the evolutionary origins of human morality tell us about tribalism?

One thing researchers in my field could look into more is the evolutionary connection between intrasocietal tribalism and theories of ideology. Theories of ideology have often operated with the narrow view that ideologies represent only oppressive social orders. I think that today, tribalism expressed in the form of ideology is the latest evolutionary version of humanity’s tendency to exhibit tribalistic moral behavior.

Are Liberals and Conservatives Psychologically Different?

By Linda Skitka, as told to Karen Yuan

Skitka, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studies how the strength of moral convictions affects people’s behavior. She describes the top conversations among her colleagues.

People in my field are talking a great deal about how political identities are converging—how racial, gender, religious, and other kinds of identities are all lining up together. There is some disagreement in the field about whether liberals and conservatives are fundamentally different kinds of people.

  • One team takes the view that liberals and conservatives have different existential needs. It says conservatives are more motivated by a need for closure, sensitive to threats, and biased toward negative information. This approach tends to look at underlying personality traits of political conservatives.
  • Another team says, actually, if you look under the hood, the psychology of liberals and conservatives is remarkably similar. This school looks less at traits and more at how people think and behave in the real world. For example, to what degree are liberals and conservatives equally likely to express prejudice toward those they don’t like? It’s finding a great deal of evidence for that. I’m on this team.

There’s a great deal of interest in factors that give rise to things like authoritarianism and nationalism. Getting a good understanding of what leads people to adopt more extreme ideologies is important for guarding against them. Another topic that is very hot in the field right now is how to understand the psychology of fake news and what leads people to either “like” it or share it online.

Where to Dive In on Tribalism

By Caroline Kitchener

We asked the scholars we spoke with to give the Masthead community recommendations for books and articles on political tribalism, outside of the pages of The Atlantic. Here’s what they suggested.

Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” by Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Míriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon

While America is often depicted as a country divided in half—one side deep red, the other deep blue—the authors found that their 8,000 randomly selected American respondents fit more neatly into seven distinct categories: progressive activists, traditional liberals, passive liberals, the politically disengaged, moderates, traditional conservatives, and devoted conservatives. Two-thirds of Americans—members of the three groups in the middle—belong to what the authors call an “exhausted majority.” These Americans will not see blue or red 100 percent of the time. They are, at least occasionally, open-minded, suggesting that Americans might be far less polarized than the current political moment suggests.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene (2013)

The human brain, Greene writes, is like a camera with two settings: point-and-shoot, and manual. The point-and-shoot mode is the default—according to Greene, that represents our emotions. Manual mode, on the other hand, represents our ability to reason through an issue. The point-and-shoot mode, Greene says, is what makes humans tribal. Grounded in neuroscience and psychology, Greene’s book, which Buchanan calls “controversial and disputed,” offers a practical road map to fighting off tribal instincts when appropriate and learning to balance emotion and reason. Greene’s solution, Buchanan says, boils down to one simple prescription: “We all become utilitarians.”

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, by Lilliana Mason (2018)

Politics is becoming more personal, Mason argues. While Americans were once able to compartmentalize their political opinions, cross-party personal relationships are becoming more rare. Strengthened ties to racial, religious, and cultural groups, she says, make an individual less likely to see his or her political opponents with goodwill. “Mason is particularly good at talking about how everyone’s identities are converging under party labels,” Skitka says, “so their attachment to their party becomes stickier.” In this way, Mason’s work seems to stand in opposition to the “Hidden Tribes” report. The current divide, Mason says, can be apportioned “neatly between the two political parties.”

The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, by Robin Fox (2011)  

An anthropologist, Fox looks to evolutionary science to explain why humans seem predisposed to take sides. Fox, like Greene, argues that humans are predestined to be tribal. “The prehistoric tribal organization in which the human psyche is said to have been forged” is the ultimate source of Americans’ divisions, as Rosen explains Fox’s argument. His outlook for the future is somewhat more grim than those of the other authors listed here. The “tribal roots” of humanity, Fox says, will make it hard for humans to make meaningful connections with those who fall on a different side.

The Original Sin of Cognition,” by Sarah-Jane Leslie, in The Journal of Philosophy(2017)  

Generalizations are the building blocks of tribalism, Leslie writes. Human beings, she says, tend to fixate on what one member of another group is doing wrong—and use that example to make sweeping assumptions about all members of that group. “Long before we learn to talk,” Leslie writes, “our expectations concerning novel members of a category are shaped by our experience with already encountered members.” These presumptions inhibit productive conversation and connection. Leslie’s solution is likely easier said than done: Identify the factors that lead to the damaging expectations, and train the mind to question them.

Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s Question: What tribe are you part of? Take the quiz, and report your results here. (Or feel free to email us about why the idea of political tribes is totally off base!)

  • What’s Coming: On Friday, the Atlantic’s politics team will break down some of of the most important results from the midterms.

  • Your Feedback: Did you like today’s issue of The Masthead? Click the button below, and let us know.

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