Monday, January 06, 2014

Hardwired Tribalism

A few days ago, shopping in a local supermarket, I noticed a stranger and promptly categorized him as one of us. He was (I'm guessing) in his twenties, somewhat overweight, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a scruffy beard, engaged in animated conversation with two younger companions. Animated conversation aside, none of that describes me. My instinctive reaction reflected the fact that he fit the pattern of people in environments where I am comfortable. He was probably an sf fan, probably a board game or computer game player, possibly a World of Warcraft player, possibly an SCA member.

Like most moderns, I am a member of more than one tribe. Some years back, when we were visiting colleges that one or the other of our children was considering, I took advantage of that fact to find sources of information not funneled through the admissions department. Part was locating members of the local SCA group, if there was one, and talking with them about the school. Part was wandering around the economics department getting into conversations. Economists are more willing to talk freely to a fellow economist than to a random parent, a trait I took advantage of.

For one final and stranger example, I offer my response to seeing someone else driving the same model and color of car I drive. I know nothing else about the driver, but my instinctive reaction is to categorize him as a sort of distant kin.


Russ Nelson said...

My wife laughs. "Just because they drive a Subaru like you doesn't make them a good driver in the snow."

Anonymous said...

SCA = Scottish Canoe Association?

(I could've picked worse ones :-P)

Norm said...

I miss the tribal custom of waving at those who drive a car similar to yours. This was quite common when I learnt to drive.

Mark Horning said...

I drive a Mustang Convertible. Others who do so always wave or give the "thumbs up" when the top is down.

Anonymous said...

this is a path to racism

Tibor said...

I sometimes ride a motorcycle - a cross country one. Everytime you meet a "fellow" biker on the road (or a terrain track), you wave at them and they wave at you. Less often if I meet other types of bikes (chopppers or road bikes in general).

Anonymous said...

Diversity and Community in the 21st Century

A vast, five-year study proved that Diversity destroys community trust, undertaken by professor Robert D. Putnam, who actually set out to prove that diversity was a good thing and even spent years trying to find another explanation for his findings.

Anonymous said...

The first time Carol and I went to a Worldcon—it was Con Francisco—we arrived in the city a day early and walked over to the convention center to pick up our badges. A couple of blocks away we saw a particular set of passersby on the street who had a certain familiar look, and speculated that they might be there for the con, which turned out to be right. That gave me the sense of "fandom as ethnicity," which has been with me ever since.

Anonymous said...

I’ve spent so much time focusing on the negative aspects of tribalism that I often overlook the positive. From religious groups to bikers, I’ve seen the perils of over-identifying with a certain group and taking on us-vs-them attitudes that leads to marginalizing those that are not one of your tribe. I ride a motorcycle and it is amazing to me that other riders will make sweeping judgments about you based solely on what type of bike you ride.

I think tribalism has evolved into our natures and hard to get away from, but more and more I’ve come to see it as justification for prejudices and shallow thinking for a lot of people. I live in the Midwest and come from a very fundamentalist religious family. I see a lot of bias and jingoism in my own backyard that has, perhaps, poisoned my perception of things.

That being said, the examples you provide show some positive aspects of tribalism. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that my aversion to joining groups has caused me to miss out on a lot of social experiences and opportunities. Forming strong bonds with a group has all kinds of benefits and can be a good thing as long as you don’t come to believe your group is inherently superior to everyone else.

Power Child said...

My wife and I used to work for the same company in San Diego and had a very long commute. We developed a game where we'd spot a car in front of us and, based on the make/model/color of the vehicle and any other information available (window decals, aftermarket parts, etc.) make a set of predictions about who was driving it. Then we'd accelerate so we could see the driver and test our prediction.

We stopped playing the game because it became too easy.

David Friedman said...

SCA = Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does medieval and renaissance stuff for fun which I've been part of for forty some years.

Power Child said...

On a more serious note, I think the concept at play here is interesting and ever-relevant (everelevant?).

Yes, David, most people these days are members of more than one tribe. But to which tribes does your loyalty really impact you in a profound way? How many of your tribes really matter to you in the end? In a more life-or-death situation than shopping at the supermarket or driving around town, what tribal identity tends to pop out?

Look at prisons. Tribes emerge there very visibly, mainly along gang lines first, and racial lines second. (And with gang tattoos so prevalent, it's clear that gangs are attempting to make themselves into a kind of race anyway.)

Society is broken down similarly but less concretely. David, while you may be the only SCA member or even the only economist on the block, I'm guessing your neighborhood is mostly filled with people who are also white, college educated, married, and middle-aged. I'll guess that your wife also has a similar level of education (at least a bachelor's degree) and is also white and close in age to you. No coincidences likely.

I once attended a conference in Ohio on lake maintenance. I noticed that the other attendees (all of whom lived on or near lakes or had some other interest in maintaining lakes) were mostly white, middle aged or older, clad in jeans and polo shirts, and--this is the interesting part--unusually tall. The average height there must have been 5'11 or 6'0. (Average height for the general American population is closer to 5'9.) Again, coincidence is improbable.

RKN said...

He was probably an sf fan, probably a board game or computer game player, possibly a World of Warcraft player, possibly an SCA member.

You may be right, or you may be wrong -- a judging a book by its cover mistake.

Who knows, he might very well love the flowery prose of Tony Morrison, couldn't print "Hello World" to stdout if he tried, doesn't group well and instead prefers long walks in the rain.

Tibor said...

Power Child: I think the choice of an educated spouse is not a manifestation of tribalism. Would you say someone who's only attended elementary school would not want a university educated person because that is a different "tribe"? I think that essentially, you want someone of an equal or higher status than you are...but the funny part is that status is a very subjective matter.

And of course then it is about personal chemistry and such things which are likely even more important, but hard to measure or even describe sometimes, so you cannot make assumptions and statistics and such based on that.

I guess it is true that your tribe(s) can have an influence over what you consider high status...or just nudge you a bit into certain choices sometimes (mostly true about the family I guess). And conversely - you choose the tribe(s) you belong to based on your opinions and interests...both probably influence each other and part of the initial values and interests are influenced highly by the one tribe you don't choose - your family.

Tibor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tibor said...

Also, it reminds me of this: :)

Anonymous said...

"My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier?"

I admitted I was.

"I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier."

"I'm not," I said. "I never knew anybody who was."

"Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I've been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything."

- Cat's Cradle

Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

The point about the wife is relevant because you are more likely to meet someone with similar interests if you hang around people similar to you in other "tribal" areas like race, education level, income, family background, etc.

You choose certain tribes, but the ones that matter most in life-or-death situations tend to be ones you don't choose:

Speaking very hypothetically of course, if Thomas Sowell goes to prison, he may object to hanging out with the thugs in the black gang because he has little in common with them in terms of interests and hobbies, but when the white gang comes to shank him it will be the black gang that rises up to protect him.

On the other hand, Jesse Jackson crosses the street when he sees a young black guy coming towards him. Maybe Jesse Jackson is truly "over" racism!