“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rattlers vs Eagles

The theory of tribalism I'm applying to war--in lieu of religion, which I take to be one manifestation of tribalism--stems largely from the Robbers Cave Experiment conducted by Muzafer Sherif et al in the early fifties. The set up was that two groups of 12-year-old boys were taken to Robbers Cave, a camp in Oklahoma. Neither group knew at first about the other.

It only took a few days for each group to develop hierarchies and come up with names, The Rattlers and The Eagles. This was something the experimenters were expecting. They were also expecting that hostilities would be easy to provoke in the second stage of the experiment. What they weren't prepared for was the severity of these hostilities.

What happened is that as the groups caught wind of each other, and eventually as they were pitted against each other in sports games, they developed stronger in-group solidarity, became aggressively territorial over disputed "shared" spaces, like mess halls, and even encouraged differing group ethics to bolster their collective identities. One prided itself on its martial discipline and toughness, the other on it refraining from the use of curse words.

This second stage of the experiment was cut short after a few instances of aggression involving socks filled with rocks. But the third stage, in which a rapprochement was attempted, did meet with some success. The key was "super-ordinate goals," for instance the task of helping to get a truck loose after it got stuck on the side of the road. Since this task required all the boys to work together, they had to put aside their differences for the common good. And working alongside each other had lasting effects.

Can't Jews be thought of as a rival tribe to Muslims or Christians? Can't the north and the south in the American Civil War, separated along geographical as well as ideological lines, be thought of the same way, even though both were nominally Christian? These examples seem obvious, but I think there are important lessons to take away.

Robbers Cave is just one experiment of course, with young boys as subjects. But it is a good demonstration of the concept. There is a natural proclivity in humans to divide themselves into rival groups, so natural in fact that a great deal of our daily thought runs along the lines of "This is how that group is different from us"--with the implication that that difference is in fact an inferiority.

On the morning after 9/11, when all those American flags were hanging from all those American front porches, that too was an expression of tribalism.

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