The Personality of Tribalism

"My team is better than yours."

“My team is better than yours.”

Ingroups and Outgroups

A fundamental aspect of human behaviour is our tendency to team up in groups and distinguish ourselves from other groups. Some of the more common groups are based on ethnic, racial, religious, political and socio-economic criteria. But even a preference for a certain soccer team or a brand of computers can become the basis of a tribe or a group.

Social groups share some basic characteristics. They view their own group, called the ingroup, as superior to the other groups, called outgroups. They conform to their groups norms, and, perhaps most problematic, they favour their ingroups while being hostile to outgroups. In this post I will simply refer to the tendency to join groups and behave in this way as tribalism.

Tribalism as a Heritable Personality Trait

So, what does this have to do with personality? Well, it turns out that there is an individual variation in the tendency to identify with groups. Some people are more eager to band together than others. Like other personality traits, group identity has a substantial heritability. One relatively recent study by psychologist Christopher Weber and colleagues (2011) asked 691 pair of twins three questions about their racial, ethnic and religious ingroups – how much they identify with their group, how much they prefer it to other groups and how important it is to marry within the group. These measures typically ranged between 40 to 60 percent in heritability, with a notable exception of the importance of marrying someone in the same ethnic group which had a heritability of 0 to 8 percent depending on which model was adopted. This is perhaps due to the fact that these samples tend to be of White people so a lot of the variance in ethnicity may be between Irish, English, German etc.

While these heritabilities were substantial, they leave plenty of room for environmental influence. But the case for a societal or cultural influence is quite weak. This falls under the shared environment which was negligible for all but the religious measure where it varied between 0-22 percent which isn’t much to brag about either. The exception here is again ethnic marriage which had a shared environmental factor of 31-37 percent depending on model. So overall, family, local community, culture, schools, etc, had little or no influence on how tribal the participants turned out.

Relations to Other Personality Traits

Looking at the Big Five model, Weber and his colleagues found little genetic links between Big Five traits and the measures discussed above. And in general the links between ingroup bias (the preference for your own group, a central feature of tribalism) and personality are mixed. There are measures for political attitudes like Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation that tap into the ingroup bias, but they are much more narrow traits/attitudes that measure political attitudes as well. But there is one measure that seems to relate directly to tribalism and that is Identification With All of Humanity (IWAH). This measure asks questions about how strongly people identify with all humans as well as with the nation and local community. It would seem like a good measure of the opposite of tribalism. One study by Sam MacFarland and colleagues (2012) found the measure IWAH to correlate somewhat with Openness 0.36, Agreeableness 0.24 and Neuroticism 0.20. Of these correlations the one to Openness seems quite respectable, but there are reasons to view it with some skepticism. Why?

The Liberal Tribe

For political reasons. The person who claims to identify with all of humanity is usually found at the liberal/left side of the political spectrum and Openness correlates strongly with liberalism. These people do not identify strongly with the traditional groups like race, ethnicity, nation etc, they form ingroups based on their political views instead. I haven’t found any actual research to confirm this, probably because the overwhelming majority of psychologists identify as liberals, but there is a very revealing study by psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers (2012) that surveyed 800 psychologists, 94 percent of whom identified as liberal. When they asked these psychologists whether they would discriminate against a colleague if they knew it was a conservative, a staggering amount of them admitted that they would, the percentage varied between 14 percent on inviting a conservative to a symposium to 38 percent on hiring a conservative. Furthermore, the study showed that the stronger a psychologist identified as liberal, the more likely he or she would discriminate. And these people typically score very high on Openness, which is a self-rate measure, but their tribalism is pretty obvious. Here is a funny example of this from The Daily Show which, rather bravely, challenges its own viewers,

A Brand New Trait

Given this, I think it’s reasonable to view tribalism as new personality trait. It doesn’t correlate strongly to any of the Big Five and there is no obvious reason to believe that it would be interchangeable with any traits outside this model , such as Honesty/humility, Sensation Seeking or “dark” traits like Narcissism or Psychopathy either. Like other personality traits, it’s highly inheritable and is not influenced much by upbringing, culture or other shared environmental factors. And although it’s most definitely seems more common among conservatives, it can easily be found among liberals too, so it’s not just a political attitude. So by all accounts this is a new trait that needs to be conceptualized, measured and researched.

Big Deal?

The importance of this trait can hardly be overstated. The mere fact that it relates to who you will consider marrying is a good example of how deeply it influences people. The idea of the ingroup as superior to others and the hostility towards other groups is also something that will translate to prejudice, discrimination and violence directed at the “inferior” groups. Clearly this trait predicts a lot of life outcomes.

This is not to say that all the outcomes stemming from a high degree of tribalism are bad. This trait also fosters a sense of solidarity, loyalty and trust among members of the group. I would go so far as to say that tribalism is the main fabric of society. The person scoring very low on this trait is someone who doesn’t belong anywhere. He or she is likely to be a naïve (and yes, often liberal) person who loves everyone and assumes that the feeling is mutual.  So we need this trait. Like all other traits it serves a purpose. Otherwise will end up like this,

Hopefully some psychologist for whom truth means more than politics will take an unbiased look at what can only be described as very fundamental and overlooked aspect of human personality. Any takers?


12 Responses to The Personality of Tribalism

  1. […] The Personality of Tribalism – from staffan. […]

  2. Luke Lea says:

    Were those identical twins raised apart?

    Also, what about the influence of actually being born into a tribe separate from and perhaps in competition with other tribes. This has been the human condition from time immemorial. Such people are closely related, so what does it mean that the trait is heritable? I guess what I’m asking is how do you separate out heritability among a group that have a very similar inheritance and also a shared environment? How heritable is mother love — maybe that’s a different question.

  3. Staffan says:

    No, they were raised together, so the environment is the same. Half were identical and half were sibling twins.

    I may have been misleading in using the word “tribal” since the participants are all contemporary Americans. It’s a very light form of tribalism compared to people in Africa or the Middle East, so there is no reason to suspect much inbreeding. But I can’t say for sure.

  4. […] “The Personality of Tribalism” […]

  5. The psychologist you are looking for is Jonathan Haidt. You will find his work gratifying. He used to identify as liberal, but that is much less strong as his published, controversial work comes under attack – usually for poor reasons.

    I’ve been writing about the Arts & Humanities Tribe – now predominantly liberal – for a half-dozen years. hbd*chick linked to this post and I am looking forward to the rest of your writing. Putting it in a Big Five framework was something I hadn’t thought of.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, his moral foundations are probably very similar to personality traits, although he fails to see the tribal tendencies among liberals – even though he pointed out the survey showing their bias against conservatives. But I should read up on that before I say too much…

      It would certainly be interesting to see if he can come up with a measure of moral foundations and see how it compares to the regular personality tests.

      As for the Big Five, I wasn’t really trying to incorporate tribalism to that model, just noting that it didn’t match any of the most commonly researched traits. I think the theoretical models are more interesting. You can’t really understand it without a theory.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    Thanks. Most interesting.

    My guess is that American politics is driven less by differences in tribalism than by how that tribalism manifests itself. Conservative whites tend to have roughly concentric loyalties, while liberal whites make a big deal over their leapfrogging loyalties.

    To use your example, “Mars Attacks” is a conservative movie, while “Avatar” is a liberal movie.

    • Staffan says:

      Interesting article. I believe social conservatives are pretty basic in their loyalties – either out of unreflected traditionalism or a good understanding of human nature. Liberals are more complicated. They seem to have two kinds of loyalties: One is similar to the traditional loyalty and this they are in denial aobut. They will pay good money to live in a White neighborhood and then watch The Wire to keep it real.

      The other loyalty, the leapfrogging kind, is with various minorities for which they have an awkward paternalistic yet brotherly concern.This is probably as you say a social status marker, but I suspect that there is a genuine concern too. It may be different in America. Your liberals seem a bit more aggressive and smug than ours (I live in Sweden).

      • Ah. I am a Swede by descent on one side (Lake Vanern), and so always keep track of what is up with them. (Norwegians too, now that I have a son in Tromso.) I think the egalitarianism and comfortable socialism of Scandinavians will be tested in Malmo and other cities as the refugee, islamic, and Roma populations come in. I applaud the attempt, but I don’t think tolerance is going to prove as easy as it looks to Scandinvians when they are looking at the Anglosphere.

        I think that is related to the smugness of some of ours. When you have to work at tolerance by doing it you have one result; when you try to preach it while escaping it you get another. Who knows how that plays out.

  7. Staffan says:

    The situation in Malmö and similar places has led to a reaction, at last, against the influx of Muslims. In 2002 the anti-immigrant party had less than one percent, today they have around 10 percent of the voters. They are actually more popular among immigrants than among ethnic Swedish women, so there is still a lot of denial in the White upper middle class suburbs. Sadly, it seems they need for their children to get beat up in school or something before they will face reality.

  8. […] keep a lion’s share of that wealth)? i understand that it has to do with innate feelings of “tribalism” — wanting to belong to and identify with a group — but, well, i guess i have a hard […]

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