Friday, April 14, 2006

Hardwired Tribalism

I was recently part of a rather odd Usenet exchange. Someone had suggested that if Gore had been elected in 2000 he might, like Bush, have ended up invading Iraq. A poster who appears to be a committed partisan of the Democratic party objected that that was nonsense. I offered as evidence that it wasn't nonsense Clinton's cruise missle attack on a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, which was a sort of miniature of the Iraq invasion—responding to a terrorist attack by attacking a nation that had no obvious connection to it, with a bogus claim of weapons of mass destruction as justification.

The Democratic poster leaped to the conclusion that I was a Bush supporter, maintained that conclusion even after I explicitly denied it, and went through various contortions in order to avoid conceding that I hadn't said what he claimed I had said—he had converted my "response to 9/11" into "justified response to 9/11." His behavior struck me as particularly odd given that "Clinton behaved just as badly as Bush" is not an argument one would usually expect a Bush supporter to make—quite aside from various other unkind things about Bush I had said in other posts.

The only sense I could make out of it was that I was encountering a tribalistic view of the world. There are two sides, everyone who isn't on my side is on the other side, hence anyone who says something negative about the Democrats must be a partisan of the Republicans and any evidence to the contrary is to be ignored as experimental error.

Not long after, I heard a radio report about the French government caving in to the demands of demonstrators that they rescind legislation making it possible for employers to fire young workers. Oddly enough, part of my reaction was a feeling of satisfaction. The news implied a further decline of the wealth, power, and status of France, France is part of Europe, Europe is at the moment the obvious status rival to America, and I am an American. Speaking as an economist, my best guess is that the decline of the French economy makes me worse off, not better off. But to some part of my mind hardwired by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in hunter/gatherer bands, there is only us and them, and anything that is bad for them is good for us.

26 Comments:

At 5:17 AM, April 15, 2006, Anonymous johnt said...

I've heard British soccer fans being compared to tribes, and not to polite ones at that. My guess is that the hardwiring relates to the function of taking sides and identifying, that part of us which is social/group orientated and not individualistic.
The problem with it is too many surrender the self to the cause and lose their separateness and judgement in the process.

 
At 5:40 AM, April 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I followed the exchange on the newsgroup, and was interested by your interest in it, and found it amusing you post it on your blog. You've hit on a concept I've been interested in lately.

It seemed to be that an important part of "tribalism" you don't mention is the identification. "I identify with my group; I am in part literally identical to my group - my group is me - so when you insult my group you by definition insult me." This identification I think is the major force behind partisanship. When one identifies with a group, be it country or sports team or family, one takes it personally when the group is insulted or succeeds. Personally because the success or failure is in part (due to identification) one's own.

Clearly there's strong identification with oneself. Insult someone's opinion, and they take it very personally, because they identify with the opinion. I think tribalism, partisanship etc. is an apparently evolutionally successful extension of this self-identification.

 
At 9:11 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Rick and Gary said...

Schadenfreude over France is a interesting analogy. I totally agree with the comments about group identity in political discourse.

I would add that in addition to evolutionary advantages, another benefit is that people who simply follow a political script do not have to go through the trouble of thinking for themselves.

 
At 10:47 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger autodogmatic.com said...

David,

Can this be brought back to rational bigotry on some level? It is less costly to understand and interact with a world that is simpler - "us vs. them" instead of "me, you, that guy and everyone else" (seeing a world full of individuals instead of groups). Simplification is less costly than diversity.

Neal

 
At 1:46 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Jadagul said...

I definitely have noticed this politically. I, like many libertarians, have identified strongly with the Republican party over the Democratic Party. Over the course of 2003-2004, Bush did an extremely good job of breaking that identification, such that by election 2004, I couldn't come up with a clear reason to prefer Bush or Kerry. But I remember still being excited and a bit thrilled when Bush won, since he was "on my side"—even if I didn't think he'd make the better president. For that matter, now that I'm thoroughly disgusted with the Republicans, I still identify with them and still in my gut want them to beat the Democrats; this sort of identification is very deep-rooted, I think.

 
At 11:06 PM, April 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>now that I'm thoroughly disgusted with the Republicans, I still identify with them

This seems to be the majority position in the US right now. I guess the majority of Germans still identified with Hitler in 1943, the majority of Russians with Stalin.

Couldn't you guys just get together and identify with Weird Al, or somebody else that's not trying to destroy your economy, maintain permanent global war, etc?

 
At 1:03 AM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Bryan Eastin said...

Is the moral here that we need a political system in which candidates are judged on their records and statements rather than their party?
I never liked political parties much myself, but I have some German friends who feel they're very useful.

 
At 6:44 AM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are under the WRONG assumption that a higher GDP necessarily involves a better qualitity of life. There's more to human life than that.

 
At 11:18 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Mark said...

I was pleased about the France situation simply because I would like some country to be an obvious harbinger of the ills of soft socialism, perhaps giving the rest of us time to change course when we see the wreckage.

 
At 12:11 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous writes:

"You are under the WRONG assumption that a higher GDP necessarily involves a better qualitity of life. There's more to human life than that."

Nowhere in this post, or anything else I have written, will you find the assumption that a higher GDP necessarily involves a better quality of life.

I am guessing that Anonymous' point is that the French are better off with job security, even if that means a lower level of output. That is certainly possible. Anonymous might want to think about how one would find it whether it was true.

He might also want to think about how such tradeoffs get made in a market economy without regulation, what determines the mix of salary and other conditions that employers find it in their interest to offer.

 
At 7:18 PM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>I am guessing that Anonymous' point is that the French are better off with job security,

Ummm... what about the French who will NEVER get jobs because no employer can risk hiring them in a "no-fire-even-for-incredible-stupidity" zone? Are they better off? More secure?

 
At 2:10 PM, April 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe most of the issues regarding Islamic fundametalism are of this kind.

There's enough obvious explicit tribalism in how Muslims deal with non-Muslims. But also:

1. Note the recent controversy over the death penalty for the former Muslim who converted to Christianity. The reaction is closer to what you'd expect for treason (abandoning one's group for the enemy) than for apostasy.

2. As has been pointed out, the strongest reaction from Muslims (eg. the Danish cartoons) is to the acts of non-Muslims. Far worse atrocities committed by Muslims on Muslims do not cause riots.

3. There is a strong lack of internal discussion among Muslims, at least publicly. Jews disagree publicly with Jews all the time on many issues. Christians disagree with Christians. There are various Catholic groups who vehemently disagree with the Church and each other. But there are few Muslim groups who oppose each other on important issues in public.

As an anecdote, a few weeks ago there was a letter to the editor in one of the papers here, from a Muslim, objecting to the standard Muslim stance on some issue (probably the cartoons). It was followed by a letter from another Muslim, accusing the paper of printing the letter only to try to "set Muslim against Muslim".

Hard to find more evidence of tribal mentality than that.

 
At 5:59 PM, April 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've long suspected the same hard-wired dynamic, tribablism, is similarly to blame for the bulk of the current anti-immigration hyteria. The visceral feelings people get when confronted with footage of hordes of brown people sneaking across the border can't be very different from the feelings a cro-magnon must have experienced upon his first sight of a new tribe moving into valuable hunting territory. That a modern replay of such sentiment is entirely irrational (unlike the situation for the cro-magnon, for whom greater competion for scarce resources may well have been a matter of life and death) is neither here nor there.

 
At 3:30 AM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Friedman said...

Anonymous writes:

"You are under the WRONG assumption that a higher GDP necessarily involves a better qualitity of life. There's more to human life than that."

Nowhere in this post, or anything else I have written, will you find the assumption that a higher GDP necessarily involves a better quality of life.

I am guessing that Anonymous' point is that the French are better off with job security, even if that means a lower level of output. That is certainly possible. Anonymous might want to think about how one would find it whether it was true.

He might also want to think about how such tradeoffs get made in a market economy without regulation, what determines the mix of salary and other conditions that employers find it in their interest to offer.
12:11 PM, April 16, 2006


I think that DDF misinterprets anonymous.

I think that anonymous is responding to the idea in David Friedman's post that French well-being--in this case, equivalent to increased economic efficiency--is a positive sum outcome, one that will help DDF.

Anonymous asks DDF to consider the idea that by using non-economic metrics, DDF's intution (that this is zero-sum, and French loss is American gain) is correct.

For instance, suppose that you place a high value on prestige in the international arena. You suppose that a relatively better functioning US economy, vis-a-vis France, makes the US more prestigious. In this case, an efficiency-reducing move on the part of the French is just as good as an efficiency-enhancing move on our part.

 
At 5:03 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger markm said...

"Note the recent controversy over the death penalty for the former Muslim who converted to Christianity. The reaction is closer to what you'd expect for treason (abandoning one's group for the enemy) than for apostasy." To medieval thinkers, apostasy is worse than treason. It is indeed abandoning one's group for the enemy - and the religious "tribe" is far higher in importance than the national tribe.

 
At 10:23 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger Gil said...

Also, I think that some of the satisfaction about the French bad policy might be that it confirms a previously held impression of them; not that you're happy that they are worse off.

 
At 3:12 PM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous Groupthink said...

I must do whatever the group says. Morality and virtue are defined by the group, and anything the group says is right. All you people outside the group can go to hell!

 
At 4:41 PM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From FuturePundit:
Political Partisans Addicted To Irrational Defense Of Their Tribes
http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/003240.html#003240

 
At 10:07 AM, April 25, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

The French are championing a progressive welfare state. The United States is championing (relatively) free markets. This is an important difference. If you are a progressive you think the United States is srewing the poor. If you are a libertarian you think that France is creating the poor.

Critiqueing tribalism has shades of moral relativism: no one is better or worse, just different. Therefore, you should learn to appreciate differences.

But clearly this is not the case. Either the progressives are right, or the libertarians are right. I would suspect that this has always been true, whether of Greek city-states (would you want to live in Sparta?), nations, religions, or hunter gatherer tribes. Maybe none of these societies has been as enlightened as anarcho-capitalism (or good old fashioned liberal Democracy!), but some are better than others.

 
At 3:30 PM, April 25, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps your reaction to the French situation is not a matter of tribalism, hard-wired or otherwise, but the deeply felt love of the "I-Told-You-So".

 
At 1:29 PM, April 26, 2006, Blogger Roland Patrick said...

' I was recently part of a rather odd Usenet exchange.'

It seemed to be an entirely typical usenet exchange. Almost 100% fact free.

And, I'll bet your reaction to the French cave-in wasn't anywhere near as strong as that of Tulloch and Buchanan.

 
At 7:28 AM, April 27, 2006, Blogger A.L. Harper said...

Maybe it's time to start believing in the global tribe.

 
At 10:57 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Jeff Brown said...

Anonymous wrote: "... love of the 'I-Told-You-So'."

In a sense, that's seriously how I feel. When I hear about people implementing policies I think are glowingly stupid, I'm displeased on net. However, I'm pleased to the extemt that I can expect it to add another and an unusually clear data-point to the set of data that argue in my favor.

 
At 10:32 PM, November 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that there was no mention to Carl Schmitt here. For the philosopher of the Reich, politics could be defined as the confrontation between friends and enemies, hovering above the values that serve as its pretexts.

 
At 2:14 PM, August 27, 2007, Blogger Jonathan said...

Some 25 years ago, in England, I knew a supporter of the Labour Party who, finding that I was opposed to socialism, assumed that I was a supporter of the Conservative Party and would not be persuaded otherwise. She wasn't stupid, but she'd been brought up to believe there were two sides to politics and that was that. You had to be on one side or the other.

 
At 11:24 PM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Tyler Jordan said...

I don't think that's tribalism David, I believe it is Nationalism. Or in other words cultural values instilled at an early age by the state. Hard-coded into us is the ability to see differences in each other and to know, who is a member of our family/tribe and who is not, also certainly we do seek to protect what is ours, however, I think it is a bridge to far to assume that we innately seek to see others fail or to wish harm unto them. I believe that is something that develops over time through our culture and environment.

 

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