The Personality of Tribalism

March 18, 2013
"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?


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