The Origins of our Tribal Mindset and 8 Ways to Avoid Tribal Thinking Traps
In 2012 I led a school trip to Malawi and Mozambique. There, I had a conversation with a tribal leader and we exchanged stories about our daily lives. He asked me where I get my water from. I said not from the river, we have two taps that deliver hot and cold water in seconds. He asked me if I cooked my food by fire, I said we had these weird things called gas hobs, ovens and electric microwaves. He asked me how many wives I had, I told him we only have one where we come from (he had three!!
The way this man and his tribe lived was pretty much how humans have lived for the last 300,000 years. Only in the last few thousand years have the majority of humans taken up residence in towns and cities. And only in the last 100 years have few stopped living with our extended families. I was born in Worcester and grew up in Nottingham. My father's family lived in Shrewsbury (1 hour 45 minutes away), my mother's in Blackpool (2 hours 45 minutes away).
Since we spent the large majority of our time on this fine earth as tribal people this has shaped our minds and how we think. Now we no longer live in small, isolated tribes, we now have some out of date thinking habits. Ever wondered why you have an irrational fear of what others think about you? Ever wonder why men get so irrational about football teams? Or why some humans irrationally hate anyone that doesn't share their own political view?
And what about...
Playing competitive team sports
Voting for Donald Trump and Brexit
Tall poppy syndrome
And why are these school kids doing this?
Now that's an impressive send off for a teacher!
The answer is our tribal mentality. Once upon a time, all people on the planet belonged to a tribe. After millions of years evolving in tribes, we developed psychological tendencies that help us survive in small tribes. What we can call tribal tendencies or a tribal mentality.
Today our tribes are much more abstract. I have quite a few different tribes:
- A Ford family tribe
- A British tribe
- An English tribe
- A socialist/ democratic tribe
- A Sheffield tribe
- A rugby tribe
- A Brazilian Jujitsu tribe
- A health conscious tribe
- A meditation tribe
- An Apple tribe
Why we love a tribe
Homo sapiens love to belong. Feeling like part of the gang is like sitting by a fire on a winters night to our soul. We seek much of our identity and meaning in life from our tribal associations.
Human beings have always depended on one another, for love, companionship and survival. Alone we are weak and feeble but together we have become the most dominant species on the palnet..
Nature or Nurture?
So far, I've painted a pretty 'nature' based argument. We are the way we are because of thousands of years of evolution. But if you asked me to explain human psychology in one sentence, I would sum it up by saying "monkey see, monkey do."
So much of our behaviour is shaped by the tribes we belong to. This starts with our parents, brothers and sisters, friends and teachers but it then ends up in all sorts of places. Some choose a vegan tribe others choose a neo-nazi tribe.
According to biologist Robert Sapolsky belonging to a religious tribe is a better predictor of healthspan than the food we eat! He's been quoted saying that "religion is nature's antidepressant" since religious people live longer, healthier and happier lives than atheists.
Why are we so tribal?
The opposite of belonging to a tribe is being isolated and nothing strikes fear to the soul like being alone. The best way to get cast out by the tribe was to be the opposite of a prosocial and altruistic homo sapien. Self-centered, narcissistic brats weren't much use to a tribe trying to survive in a dangerous environment. In the past we had to share our neighbourhood with:
- leopards, lions and tigers
- snakes, spiders and scorpions
- alligators, crocodiles and lizards
- sharks, sea snakes and jelly fish
- wolves, wild dogs and bears
But then there are the beasts of the past like short faced bears...
...and giant baby snatching eagles...
....who ate giant Moa birds...
...and all sorts of other beasts:
Then there were the other tribes of Hominins (great apes) that homo sapiens may or may not have competed against:
- Homo Habilis
- Homo Erectus
- Homo Floresiensis
- Homo Heidelbergensis
- Homo Naledi
- Homo Rudolfensis
- Homo Neanderthalensis
Our own species, homo sapiens, only appeared around 300,000 years ago. Some earlier humans (listed above) were around for 2 million of years. So how did we manage to survive when all of our closest relatives died out? And what happened to all those beasts that are no longer around today?
Well, to be honest, it complicated and we don't exactly know. But besides climate change, meteor strikes and human driven extinctions, we survived because of our ability to communicate and cooperate in tribes.
From small tribes to mega tribes
With the advent of the agricultural revolution, 12,000 years ago, came the growth of civilisation. What do the Romans, Mongols, Egyptians, British, Hindus, Muslims, Christians all share in common? They are all famous because of their ability to form huge tribes based on shared beliefs and mass cooperation.
Some experts suggest that a move from hunting to farming lead to a decrease in life quality. Basically farming was really hard and much more time-consuming. But when a farmer's life was tough, belonging to a mega-tribe gave us some kind of purpose and significance. And a war was an exciting break from farming, especially with all those vicious neighbours that want to rape and kill your family and friends. Understandably, this forced humanity down some dark roads.
The heinous acts of the 20th Century
The biggest lesson from the 20th century was that ordinary human beings are capable of horrific crimes. It's easy to blame Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao and Adolf Hilter for the murder of well over one hundred million innocent people. Or we could the Soviets, the Chinese and the Germans. But no single man or nation was responsible for atrocities of the 20th century. No, the killing was done by people like you and me. People born into a tribe that ended up committing heinous acts against humanity.
Time of Peace
Praise the Lord for Google, Apple and Facebook. And for McDonalds, CocaCola and Amazon. Instead of helping support religious or nationalistic empires we are now supporting consumerist empires. These evil empires have exchanged killing people for killing the planet.
Instead of fighting for kings and queens we are now supporting global corporations. And the corporate leaders seem to be driving the world down another dark road. Or perhaps not if you listen to Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize and the Singularity University.
The world is much more peaceful today than ever before. But peace is not guaranteed to continue, especially if you watch the news. The antics of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are out of our own hands but the people still possess much more power than they realise.
If we are to maintain world peace we must all stand up and fight for it. And that starts with a damn hard look in the mirror. Before we point a vitriolic finger at world leaders we must turn it on ourselves. We must see how our own tribalistic tendencies are contributing towards the demise of the world.
8 ways to avoid tribalistic traps
- Take care how you spend your money. Use your money to support tribes (brands/ companies/ people) that do good, tribes that aren't contributing to the unreasonable suffering of humans, animals and the environment.
- Be careful who you work for. Everyone needs money to live, but if you are working for a corrupt, greedy corporation, perhaps it's time for a career change.
- Recognise that we often demonise strangers, vagrants, immigrants and foreigners. Despite our differences, we share much more in common than what divides us. Try to get to know the people that you hate, dislike or people that make you feel uncomfortable.
- Most people care way too much about what others think, especially about ourselves. Since almost everyone is paranoid about what other people are thinking, very few people are actually thinking about you. And if people do judge you, don't worry about it, they are judging you because of their own fears, insecurities and misunderstandings. What people think about you is not of your business, leave it in their head, don't bring it into yours.
- When it comes to politics recognise that there's not much difference between those on the political left and those on the right. Just because someone voted for Brexit doesn't make them a xenophobic bigot. Seek to understand the beliefs of others with a conversation founded on respect.
- Focus on the facts and make others do the same. To get to grips with global events it's important we deal with accurate facts and the truth ("cough, weapons of mass destruction!"). Unfortunately, as WikiLeaks often reveals, our political leaders don't always tell the truth. The same can be said for the BBC, Sky News and any other media outlet.
- Beware of the fairness bias. We hate it when life is not fair. But there are different ways of being fair and we tend to favour, often unconsciously, the version of fairness that best suits us and our tribe. Ask yourself if the way you live your life is unfair to people outside of your tribe.
- Be generous and give up some of your time or money. Our tribal past has shaped humans to be caring and altruistic, but only to people that belong to our tribe. Our sympathies for distant statistical strangers are weak. But what is more important, your smart phone, or the life of another human being? Thankfully, something new is growing in the world, a global tribe that looks out for its members, not to gain an advantage over others but simply to do good. So think carefully about your tribal associations, seek to unite all humans under one giant tribe, not divide them into different regions, races and religions.
Now you are armed with tactics to avoid tribalistic traps, it's time to take action. But start with just one thing, something achievable, and then work from there. Try not to change everything at once, just point yourself in the right direction.
If you found this article interesting, then it would mean a lot to me if you shared it with your tribes. You might also be interested in signing up for my monthly newsletter where I share other stories in evolutionary health. You can sign up below,