The Search for Western Tribalism

June 29, 2013

Readers of this blog know of my interest in tribalism, the tendency to team up in groups that distinguish themselves from and compete with other groups. This trait is both good and bad. It fosters a sense of community and identity and like I’ve said before, it’s probably the most important fabric of any society. But tribalism also comes with ideas of the superiority of the ingroup and hostility towards outgroups creating tension and conflicts within and between societies.

Reading the blogger hbd chick*, I’ve also learned about the similar behavioural trait of clannishness found in clan-based societies, mainly in the Muslim world. I’ve been treating the terms clannishness and tribalism rather synonymously although I now believe they are two related but separate things. And now I’m reading psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind in which he presents his theory of moral foundations, gut feelings on which we base our moral judgments. According to Haidt, one of these foundations is Loyalty/betrayal aka Ingroup, which appears very similar to tribalism. He notes that self-identified conservatives lean more on this foundation than liberals.

So, exactly how do clannishness, tribalism and conservatism relate to one another? Well, I’m basically arguing that clannishness is a more primitive or extreme form of tribalism and that conservatism is a heterogeneous attitude that may or may not incorporate tribalism.

In the Beginning There Was Clannishness

To get a better understanding of the tribal person, especially in America, and probably most other Western countries, we need to go back to the evolutionary roots of this trait. hbd chick* has described how this behavior may have evolved  when people found themselves in situations where trusting strangers was especially risky – like if you for instance were a cattle herder and all your property could be easily stolen. This problem was solved by marrying relatives. This created clans in which everyone was tied by blood to each other. If you needed a job done you could hire a person in your clan and you didn’t have to worry about your cattle being gone the next day. Most people probably have a little of this tendency since we appear to have lived for most of our existence as a species in small groups competing with each other.  But pastoralists and people in similar situations made this their special niche.

This arrangement in clans can only work through inbreeding, and this in turn means that everyone in the clan can pass on their genes more efficiently through relatives than they could if they weren’t inbred. And since all known behavioural traits have been found to be highly inheritable, the tendency to be loyal to relatives and disloyal or hostile to non-relatives – that is to say clannishness – was selected for. This trait then helped to reinforce the tendency to inbreed and a loop was created which increased clannishness until the detrimental effects of inbreeding, low intelligence and various congenital diseases, slowed down the process.

Tribalism as Clannishness Light

Clannishness was probably a dominant feature of most societies up until just a few centuries ago. Then various changes occur that makes it less competitive.  Agriculture outcompetes pastoralism and in the West the Church bans first-cousin marriages etc. So people start outbreeding get smarter and clannishness disappears, except in the Muslim world and other cultures in which these changes never took place. But before that – for almost our entire existence as a species – genes for tribalism must have been selected for. It didn’t matter if you distinguished between relatives or not because the ingroup was always your relatives.  So when inbreeding and clannish life ended we became smarter and a little more open and tolerant since those traits become more important as we compete in new and shifting constellations. But for most of our existence tribalism has been selected for. And it doesn’t vanish when inbreeding stops, which explains why it’s such a prominent trait in today’s world.

Testing the Theory

To test this theory I have looked at state-level differences in intelligence, corruption and outgroup hostility, the last one as a more direct measure of tribalism. Now if tribalism is just clannishness without the inbreeding it should correlate to corruption but not nearly as much to low intelligence since this is mainly due to inbreeding – although tribalism means you submit and conform to the group rather than think for yourself so it should be linked to normal or slightly below normal intelligence. For the same reason there should not be a strong negative correlation between IQ and corruption as seen internationally because there is no clannishness in America. So here goes…

To measure intelligence I used the White IQ scores that the Audacious Epigone constructed based on NAEP scores for 2009. To measure public corruption I took convictions for the period 2001-2010 – this because the State Integrity Index is based on expert ratings on policies rather than actual outcomes and shows weird fluctuations. As a measure of tribalism I used outgroup hostility in the form racially charged Google searches for the words “nigger” and “niggers”, compiled by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a PhD student in economics at Harvard. As he points out this measure may be superior to surveys where people answer in a socially desirable rather than truthful way on sensitive issues. But he also mentions research about how the size of an outgroup influences outgroup hostility. According to this research when the Black part of the population is close to zero then so is hostility; it’s just a non-issue to most people. But when it reaches 20-30 percent you’ll find the most hostility (above that most White people leave with only the most tolerant staying). So since I’m looking for a measure of innate outgroup hostility rather than explicit racism, I decided to omit states with more than 20 percent and less than one percent Black inhabitants. The lower limit may sound too low but Maine with just over one percent Black people is still at 32th spot in racial searches.

I also excluded Hawai since I couldn’t find all the stats for it. This leaves us with 37 states and still plenty of regional variation.

And here are the results…

  • Google racial searches correlated -0.41 with White IQ

A pretty weak correlation when you consider that these search words are very low-brow. This suggests that the correlation to a more accurate measure of outgroup hostility would be even lower since not all racists are stupid and not all outgroup hostility is racist.

  • Public corruption correlated 0.51 with racial Google searches

By the same logic we might argue that this fair-sized correlation could be due to Google searches link to low IQ and the well-known link between IQ and corruption. However…

  • Public corruption correlated -0.05 with White IQ

Now it’s getting interesting. International studies point to a correlation between corruption and intelligence of around -0.7 – and here we have nothing. How can this be? One possible explanation that supports my theory is that the -0.7 found globally is due to clannishness. Since this trait incorporates low IQ, mainly due to inbreeding, we get an incidental link between IQ and corruption. In reality it’s the ingroup favouritism and outgroup hostility that causes corruption. Since there is no inbreeding in America (that I know of) there is no connection between these behaviors and intelligence. But the gene variants behind them don’t go away when you outbreed so people with a clannish history will retain their groupish behavior, their tribalism. That way we would have a substantial link between tribalism and corruption and little or no connection between corruption and intelligence.

Case In Point: Appalachia

As an example of how clannish people may have transformed into tribals, let’s look at the Appalachian region. This area is where the Ulster Scots people settled, originally noted for their many clan feuds and rumoured to be inbred (although it’s hard to find any research on this). The top 3 states with highest rate of racial searches are Appalachian, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky,  and 6 in the top 10 are Appalachian states – and there are only 7 Appalachian states in this sample. In fourth spot is Michigan which was a major destination for migrants from Appalachia looking for work in Detroit after the coal mines stopped hiring. According to Wikipedia it seems like they maintained their tribalism in this metropolitan environment,

“Once they migrated to Michigan, they were lumped together as southern white laborers, and a group consciousness based on that label emerged. Migrants from all over Appalachia began to feel a social solidarity with each other, preferring to work and live beside other Southerners than with Northerners. It was believed that the Appalachian migrants assimilated less rapidly than Northern rural migrants because of their group consciousness and the persistence of certain southern regional attitudes, and an acute awareness of the difference between themselves and other native-born white Americans.”

(The other states in the top 10 – that seem to be completely unrelated to Appalachia – are New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida.)

And as expected the region has more corruption than the average – 6.7 convictions per 10K public employees compared to the overall average 4.2. That’s roughly 60 percent higher.

Also as expected Appalachians are of normal intelligence. It’s true that West Virginia has the lowest estimate of all states at 96.8 but this is similar to many well developed countries in Europe, and the Appalachian average is 99.8 compared to the overall average 100.7, a difference of less than one point. (I excluded New York, which had 102, but with only 5.7 percent of its population in this region.)

So it seems that this region that was by all accounts the most clannish in the 1700s and 1800s is today, without any reasonable chance of widespread inbreeding, instead the most tribal. And the most melodious…

And Conservatism?

Finally, I used the difference between the percent identifying as conservative and liberal in a state, the so-called conservative advantage, from Gallup as a measure of conservatism. This measure correlated 0.05 with racially charged Google searches, slightly higher, 0.17 with corruption and negatively with intelligence, -0.32. This clearly doesn’t fit the tribal profile. It may just be an average of different conservative subtypes. As Haidt’s research shows, liberals rely on two moral foundations, Harm and Fairness, whereas conservatives rely more or less equally on all foundations. This leaves room for more variation.

Summing Up

So, what do these correlations tell us? They support the theory that clannishness is the mother of tribalism. Clan-based societies amassed gene variants contributing to ingroup bias and outgroup hostility. Inbreeding caused low intelligence. As inbreeding was banned in the West the intelligence went up but the gene variants behind the general tribalism are still with us and is very clear among peoples or ethnic groups with a clannish history. Furthermore, tribalism is not a defining characteristic of conservatism since people who identify as conservative don’t fit the tribal profile very well; it could perhaps be regarded as a subtype.



The Corrupt Person – Just Like You and Me?

March 25, 2013

"We're all friends here."

It’s well-known that crime is related to personality. The so-called Dark Triad traits of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissism are more common in criminals than in the rest of the population. Basically, these individuals are impulsive, manipulative, self-centered and callous. Now, corruption is a form of crime so it would make sense that it too related to personality, especially to those traits mentioned above.

Unfortunately, there are no individual measures of corruption. Most of this activity is hard to detect directly so it’s measured indirectly by asking people how corrupt they perceive their environment, like their nation for instance.  And such a measure, like the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI ), can then be compared to national averages of personality traits. That should give at least a hint of if and the two are related.

The Data

I haven’t found any international studies on the Dark Triad, so I compared international personality data compiled by psychologist Richard Lynn (1995) using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ).  This measure has at least one scale, Psychoticism, that has been clearly related to crime. In spite of its name it is a trait very similar to Psychopathy which is common in the prison population. I compared the EPQ data with the global anti-corruption organization Transparency International’s CPI (2012). There are some flaws in that the comparison refers to different years, but things don’t seem to change that much in either personality or corruption so I don’t think it’s a big deal. And as you can see…


CPI on the y-axis and Psychoticism on the x-axis. Remember that CPI measures lack of corruption

CPI on the y-axis and Psychoticism on the x-axis. Remember that CPI measures lack of corruption


…it’s a miss! The CPI measures lack of corruption so the -0.13 means that the correlation is not contradicting the hypothesis but it’s way too low to make a case of. This only suggests that the corrupt person has a normal or slightly elevated level of Psychoticism. Let’s look at the two other traits of the EPQ, Extraversion and Neuroticism. Here are the scatter plots,

CPI on the y-axis and Extraversion on the x-axis.

CPI on the y-axis and Extraversion on the x-axis.


CPI on the y-axis and Neuroticism on the y-axis.

CPI on the y-axis and Neuroticism on the y-axis.


Both correlate stronger with corruption than Psychoticism does, although still not very impressive: -0.19 for Extraversion and -0.18 for Neuroticism. This indicates that the corrupt person is fairly normal. This makes sense from a statistical perspective. Few people would consider stealing a car or breaking into someone’s house. But lots of people will take and receive “gifts” to grease the wheels a little. If the corrupt person would be the same as the criminal then Psychopathy and other extreme personalities you see inside the prisons would be much more common in the general population. So it’s got to be a fairly common personality.


Then there is the matter of intelligence. There is hardly anyone who would contest that corruption and national averages of intelligence are inversely related. Looking at Lynn’s data this is very clear,

CPI on the y-axis and IQ on the x-axis.

CPI on the y-axis and IQ on the x-axis.


The correlation is -0.69 which is very respectable. A study from 2011 by economist Niklas Potrafke, also using data from Lynn and the CPI, found a 0.63 (using the inverse CPI). Clearly, intelligence is a much stronger factor, but a factor which is related to personality. In my data I found a -0.54 correlation between Extraversion and IQ.  Although there is no consensus on this, it seems like more studies today do find a negative correlation between Extraversion and intelligence on the individual level, although not by far as big as I found here using national averages. For instance, a recent study found a -0.2 correlation between Extraversion and vocabulary. Extraversion may be linked to corruption merely due to its link to low intelligence, but I suspect it is a contributing factor in its own right, more on that later.

So, based on these figures, who is he, the corrupt person? An Average Joe? The data from Lynn suggests that it might be a completely average person, or maybe someone who is a little more extraverted, emotionally unstable and…well psychopathic (it may not sound like it but it is a dimensional trait like the others).  But hardly anything that would strike anyone as out of the ordinary. His most conspicuous trait would be his low intelligence, and living in a country with a low average IQ even that would not be conspicuous to his fellow countrymen.

The Extraversion Hypothesis

That said, the EPQ is just one measure among many and the quality of data is no doubt increasing over time, so the picture will eventually grow clearer. The correlation with Extraversion remains intriguing and this traits relation to intelligence is still not clear. Corruption is most likely also situational which may account for some of the high corruption in Eastern Europe, which is still recovering from the collapse of communism. For Western Europe the Extraversion/corruption correlation is -0.31. So while, it’s clear that IQ is the major factor affecting corruption levels, it seems like Extraversion can have something to do with it as well.

The link to intelligence is of course interesting itself, since it is by no means evident why a country with a low IQ would be more corrupt. It’s easy to imagine a dishonest but intelligent person trying to beat the system with corruption, for instance. Potrafke suggests that intelligent people have  longer time perspectives so they realize that they win in the long run by not resorting to corruption. Personally, I don’t buy that explanation. Do people abstain from corruption because they’ve made some pragmatic calculation? No, I think it’s more visceral. Taking a bribe just doesn’t feel good. It’s a matter of shame. And those taking the bribes just don’t feel ashamed. Why not?

The Link to Tribalism

I would say they lack shame because of their tribalism. And I’m not just saying that because my previous post was about tribalism and it’s lingering in my head : ) It is a fact that the most tribal societies in the world can be found mainly in Africa and the Middle East. And this is where the IQ levels are the lowest and corruption the most spread.  Now, the highly tribal person will not look at the public good, he will look after the interests of his tribe. And if his society is made up by several such tribes – and they all are – then he will ignore the public good and side with his own. So he will have no qualms engaging in accts of corruption as long as it benefits his group. There is no shame in it because his “real” society is the tribe. Sure, he could help his tribe even more in the long run by co-operating, but tribalism dates back to a time when there was no such co-operation.

So tribalism can explain corruption, but it can also explain low intelligence. Tribalism means conforming to the group and not thinking for yourself. That alone should put a limit to the intellectual growth.  Tribal societies also show clear signs of inbreeding . Since they can’t trust foreigners, they marry their relatives, and that is a great way to decrease your IQ. So instead of assuming that low intelligence causes corruption, which intuitively makes little sense to me, tribalism can be the cause of both these factors.

And what does this have to do with Extraversion? As I mentioned in my previous post, tribalism should be viewed as a personality trait in its own right. But traits are rarely completely distinct from each other.  My suspicion is that the tribal person is more extraverted than the average. If your life is all about the group then you’re probably interacting with other group members a lot. This didn’t show up in the study I mentioned in the previous post, as some of you might remember. But that was just one study and the participants were all from America, a country with a fairly low level of corruption. It can be harder to detect there than in the more to the clan-based societies that actually show clear signs of inbreeding. (For more on inbreeding and its effect on society, check out hbd* chick.)

I’ll get back to this if I can find more data on inbreeding and extraversion. Lynns data do support this idea but there are just too few tribal countries in his sample. Who knows, this theory may even hold for some Western groups, like Christian conservatives.  I wouldn’t rule it out.

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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