May 12, 2023

The Challenges and Opportunities of Tribalism (video)

A new book, The Power of Us by Jay Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer, argues that humanity’s tendency to form groups is both one of its greatest strengths, and one of the most acute challenges for leaders and society.

By Benjamin Reeves

A multidisciplinary group of experts share their insights into polarization, and ways to promote a healthy democracy in the above video produced by Jay Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer, with the support of Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF). The speakers discuss the importance of finding psychological solutions for both individuals and institutions, and emphasize the benefits of fostering common experiences through service and conversation.

When Jay Van Bavel was first starting his career, his job for the Northern Alberta Alliance on Race Relations involved visiting high schools around Northern Alberta to help students confront issues about racism and sexism. While the intention was good, he soon began to worry that the intervention wasn’t accomplishing what it set out to do. “I would try to talk to these high school students, and they would tell us about their stereotypes, and we would debunk their stereotypes, and it wouldn’t change their prejudices. They’d just pivot to another stereotype,”  says Van Bavel, now a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University.
This experience — and the questions it raised about why people develop prejudices or tribalism — has informed his research ever since. The same human tendencies that contribute to some of our worst social ills — including polarization and racism — are also what can help us collaborate and achieve great things or overcome existential challenges.
“Biases aren’t rational. They’re not even based on knowledge,” says Van Bavel. “They’re based on some kind of visceral or unconscious association they had towards a group.”
Such irrational prejudices are tenacious, difficult to debunk, and present in every sphere of human life. While we typically think of prejudices and tribalism in the political or social sphere, the same dynamics come into play in the world of sports in a readily identifiable way. Anyone who has played a competitive game of pickup soccer — or attended a playoff game for their favorite team — has seen how quickly tribalism takes root in a group of people. Walk into a bar wearing the wrong team’s jersey, and dirty looks — at a minimum — are sure to follow.
“Random sorting into teams just shifts mindsets really dramatically, and our interactions change really dramatically,” Van Bavel notes.
Van Bavel and Lehigh University Professor and Associate Vice Provost for Research Dominic Packer explore the evolutionary and social underpinnings of prejudice and tribalism in their latest book, The Power of Us: Harnessing our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony. On a fundamental level, polarization, tribalism and the human tendency towards stereotyping are evolutionarily evolved behaviors, and they argue that if leaders in business, politics, sports or any other sphere understand this, the same tendencies can be harnessed for good, because they also drive cooperation within groups. Van Bavel notes that human beings cooperate with “anonymous, in-group members in a way that no other primate does.”
“We lived in small groups on the African savanna, and we can’t fly away from predators or run very fast or have sharp teeth or poison or camouflage,” Van Bavel says. Instead, cooperation was key for survival. “We are the ancestors of generation after generation of people who fit in and cooperated. The ones who didn’t fit-in got kicked out of the group and they starved or didn’t reproduce. It’s part of our DNA.” These behaviors are so deeply ingrained that in a lab setting, when strangers are sorted into groups, their automatic reactions to seeing the faces of a group member versus someone in another group change within a matter of milliseconds.

“Our identities are very multifaceted,” says Packer. But when one facet, such as political party affiliation, is over-emphasized in a society “all the richness in people’s identities is collapsed into just this one thing. Are you on the left or the right? That’s pretty unhealthy for individuals and societies.”
Fortunately, when we understand that tribalism is an inherent human tendency, it becomes possible to improve how we design systems and institutions. One of the best tactics, Van Bavel argues, is to diffuse identity-based conflicts is to create a new identity that is more inclusive. For instance, when people were divided into two racially integrated groups in a lab setting, within those groups, racial bias virtually disappeared. Instead, people ignored racial differences in favor of seeing other members of their groups as individuals and potential friends instead of stereotypes.
“We’re keenly aware of the complexity of our own lives and much less so of others,” notes Packer. “This operates at the individual level and the group level.”
In other words, high level, inclusive identities reduce the effects of lower-level identities. The classic example from science fiction books and movies is humanity uniting to fight off an alien invasion. While that may be fanciful, the principle does indeed work and the promotion of inclusive groups can help strengthen democracy and cooperation while reducing polarization and partisan animosity.
In one study, Van Bavel’s lab designed an intervention in which individuals saw evidence of commonality between Republicans and Democrats, with the aim of creating a shared sense of identity as Americans, rather than members of a particular political party. Similarly, the researchers presented data about how members of the other political party thought about the other (their sentiments were consistently more positive than people thought). Finally, quotes from political leaders from each party voicing support for democracy were shared. “Once you realize the other side doesn’t despise you nearly as much as you think, that opens your mind up to them,” Van Bavel says.
By pointing out stereotypes people hold and presenting an alternative, shared identity, polarization and tribalism are reduced.
While discussions of tribalism tend to center around politics, they apply equally in areas such as business. For instance, many leaders use a mentoring leadership style and focus on supporting and nurturing their direct reports and on hiring the right people. Yet there are also leaders with a complimentary leadership style that focus on building a shared sense of identity and purpose within a group. This is even reflected in the way leaders speak, whether they say “we” versus “I.” In a study of leading German companies, companies that used collective pronouns in their annual reports were about $900,000 more profitable than those which did not.
Ultimately, humanity’s grouping tendencies are both its greatest strength and one of its greatest struggles. “We have a readiness to identify with those groups we become a part of or that pose opportunities for coalition building,” says Packer. “We can do better things together than we can do alone. But for every group we take on as an identity, there’s always at least one outgroup.” Figuring out how to capitalize on the benefits of group life while minimizing its harms is the ultimate challenge for human societies.

To learn more about research into the underlying mechanisms of polarization and depolarization, visit TWCF's Listening & Learning in a Polarized World priority.

The above video features:

Jay J. Van Bavel, Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at New York University, and Dominic J. Packer, Lehigh University Professor and Associate Vice Provost for Research, Co-authors of The Power of Us.

Annie Duke, Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education

Uriel Epshtein, Executive Director of the Renew Democracy Initiative

Joshua Fryday, Chief Service Officer for the State of California with California Volunteers

Hahrie Han, Professor of Political Science and the Director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University

Evan Mawarire, Director of Education at the Renew Democracy Initiative

Alison Taylor, Executive Director at Ethical Systems, a research collaborative affiliated with New York University.

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at BenjaminReeves.com or follow him on Twitter.