This site is moving to a new domain: check out

“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?.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Caveman Conservatism

If some people are more tribal than others, one might reasonably assume that they would gravitate more to sports. If you were to examine, say, their offices or bedroom, you would expect to find sports paraphernalia like posters and such. Also, since membership in any group is potential grounds for tribal identity, other group markers, say, American flags just might be more prevalent in the personal spaces of these more tribal individuals.

When Sam Gosling, author of "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," conducted all the research he describes in the book, he wasn't measuring tribalism directly. Instead, he was focusing on the Big Five personality traits. He did, however, include political leanings in his questionnaires. So what kind of stuff do liberals and conservatives have in their rooms?

Well, liberals tend to be a bit messier, while conservatives are much more organized. But that's not what I find most interesting in Gosling's findings. Conservatives, it turns out, aren't just concerned with order when it comes to tidiness. They're also more interested in order in terms of rankings--team rankings. What Gosling and his colleagues found was that conservatives were much more likely to have sports paraphernalia in their rooms and offices than liberals. They were also more likely to have American flags.

This leads me to wonder, are conservatives more tribal? Could there even be something fundamentally tribal about the conservative philosophy? Tribalism is a natural human tendency, a built-in bias, and even though it may have been adaptive when all humanity lived in small groups and numbered in the millions, now that we're living in a world of nearly seven billion, a world in which some of the tribes have nuclear weapons, tribalism is dangerous, potentially cataclysmic.

How many times have you talked to a gun owner about gun control and heard that great argument, if you make owning a gun a crime, then only criminals will own guns? This argument isn't even valid; it only makes sense because it appeals to our tribal inclinations. Slightly rephrased, it says there are good guys and bad guys and we want the good guys to have more guns.

"I don't have any problem with the ones who come over legally," is what I hear at the outset of every discussion I have with a conservative on immigration. "But they come over here and" compete with our tribe for resources. Of course, going through the process of immigrating legally is fine and good, but the ignorance and lack of empathy that emphasizing it shows is appalling.

Foreign policy: Ever wonder why some of the same people who argued that the Patriot Act was a great idea are now complaining about how big Big Brother is getting under Obama? It's simple, if you're watching out for bad guys, it's good, but if you're getting into the business of the folks, well then you are the bad guys.

Gays are not like us, therefore they aren't part of our tribe.

Welfare: don't take from the good guys and give to the bad guys (substitute white for good and black for bad and you're not far off the mark).

Abortion is trickier so I'll tackle it later.

I know I'm dealing here with "populist" conservatism and not the more sophisticated types. (David Brooks knows a lot more than I do about policy.) But instead of embracing this kind of outgoup hate and accepting it as legitimate discourse, we should be educating our youth to recognize and see past it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Indians vs Tigers: Who's more Flagrant?

When the Dartmouth Indians and Princeton Tigers met on the football field in 1951, things got a pretty ugly. Princeton's quarterback, an All-American playing his last game in college, had to leave the game with a broken nose and a mild concussion. But Princeton got its revenge when Dartmouth's own quarterback was tackled in the backfield so roughly that his leg was broken. A rash of editorials decried the unsportsmanlike violence and dirty tricks on both sides. And then came two psychologists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, who salvaged some indispensable data from the senselessness.

In their study, reported under the title, "They Saw a Game," Hastorf and Cantril showed students of each school a video of the game and surveyed their responses. Princeton students saw twice as many infractions committed by the Dartmouth team. Dartmouth students saw their own team making about half as many infractions as the Princeton students saw them making, and rated the number of fouls about equal. The researchers also had the viewers rate the fouls as either flagrant or mild. It was two to one flagrant over mild for Dartmouth, according to Princeton students, who saw the ratio for their own team as around one to three. According to Dartmouth students, Princeton made one flagrant for every two mild infractions, while about half of their own team's fouls were flagrant.

These students, it seems, were watching two different games. The bias may seem obvious, even humorous, but it calls into question our ability to be objective when it comes to the behavior of anyone we don't consider a member of our own group. This is the driving force behind outgroup animosity--perceiving some wrongdoing committed by the other group, allowing it to become exaggerated in recall and reporting, and then vowing revenge. It happens all the time in sports.

Sports fans are an excellent illustration of what I mean by tribalism. The teams even have their own totem animals. Fans advertise group membership with elaborate adornments, which become more pronounced at games--i.e. in the presence of other tribes. And when fights or riots break out I'm willing to bet the initial act of violence is more often than not between, as opposed to within, tribes.

The link between enthusiasm for sports and tribalism raises an important question. Judith Rich Harris bases her theory of personality development on tribal dynamics, but I suspect that some individuals are more tribal than others; that is, some people are more concerned with group and personal dominance than others. The question then is whether sports fans tend to be relatively more tribal than those who don't follow sports.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tribal Salience

Judith Rich Harris offers an intriguing extrapolation of the Robbers Cave findings to the question of individual personalities. Her idea is that each of us in fact belongs to multiple groups, and the one whose mores hold sway over us at any given moment depends on the presence or absence of other groups. The key term she uses is salience. In the case of the Robbers Cave boys, the presence of the Eagles, at a baseball game say, made membership in the Rattlers salient for the boys of that group and vice versa. But when an outside group is present, truck drivers for instance, the salient group ceases to be Eagles or Rattlers and becomes simply Robbers Cave boys.

Harris sees this salience dynamic potentially operating at any level from nations down to individuals. According to her theory, our individual personalities can be viewed as membership in the tribe of me. This is why even within our groups we compete. Harris believes that peer groups, as opposed to families, are the most important developmental influences on who we become. But if there are no rival peer groups around to make our own group salient then we are free to jockey for status. If we aren't capable of taking over the top slots of the group hierarchy, then we resort to carving out a specified niche--subordinate perhaps, but integral nonetheless. And that is the source of our individual personalities.

"The Nurture Assumption" is the book in which Harris puts forth this theory; it is at once fascinating and infuriating. I have several problems with the personality development theory itself, but my biggest beef is with Harris's pseudoscientific attempt to pillory Frank Sulloway, whose account of the effects of birth order in "Born to Rebel" is just as interesting and less histrionic. (I spent some time a few years ago researching Harris's charges against Sulloway and came to the conclusion that her criticisms were either ad hominem, ad hoc, or just silly.) However, I find her characterization of group dynamics useful in helping to give a clearer impression of what I mean by tribalism, a word Harris doesn't use herself but which I think well suits what she describes.

So, to keep the thread running, on September 10th, 2001 we were Republicans and Democrats, but the presence of an outside group the next morning made our Americanness far more salient.

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.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Questioning Tribal Warlords

Thinking about Dawkins lately, I'm wondering what it is about religion that makes it inspire so much hatred. I don't believe the statement "Religion causes war" is completely accurate, though it's hard not to see a connection.

What if religion is an manifestation of another phenomenon? What if there's another major category under the general rubric of human nature to which religion belongs?

For example: tribalism. I'll define tribalism as embodying two main elements, both of which are seen in our closest ape relatives. The first is intense animosity toward out-groups--the neighboring tribes. The second is intense competition within groups for status and the establishment of hierarchies.

Religion and tribalism aren't necessarily one and the same. Buddhism, for instance, doesn't strike me as especially tribal (though Buddhist oppression in Burma makes me wonder). But many religions, especially monotheistic ones, seem to be piggybacking on our tribal propensities.

Following this chain of reasoning, we can say religion doesn't cause wars; tribalism causes wars. But many religions aren't much more than (biblically, koranically, etc) codified, (church, mosque, temple) institutionalized, philosophically extrapolated (God as ultimate Alpha) tribalism.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dawkins Defends Himself

I just watched "The Root of All Evil?" last night. This is Richard Dawkins television documentary version of his book "The God Delusion." On the special features disc, Dawkins reads the preface to the paperback edition of his book, which was new to me because I only ever it in hardback. The entire preface is devoted to answering criticisms, most of which were pretty weak.

Dawkins says that the worst criticisms his book received began with the words, "I'm an atheist but..." I'm sure James Wood never read this preface, or saw the documentary. I'm also sure if he does either any time soon he's going to be pretty embarrassed.