top of page

Why are we so Tribal?


While there is no escape from tribalism, the key to defeating your enemy is empathy.

At first glance, people from other tribes can seem so different. They eat strange foods. They worship in unfamiliar ways. They have different attitudes towards sex. And, frankly, the way they raise their children is not the way we were raised. And yet, as different as our cultures are, we do have a shared humanity. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock expressed this most clearly.

“Hath not a Jew eyes?

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”

Jews and Christians are culturally different and yet their biology has A LOT in common. Their cultures may differ but the brain that acquires that culture and is shaped by it is largely the same.


The key to understanding how that can be relies on a simple discrepancy: culture changes much more quickly than genes.

In the last few decades, significant aspects of our culture have changed. Gay marriage has gone from being a far off, barely imagined possibility to a reality in many countries around the world. Technology has raced ahead with the internet moving from being described as a fad to becoming an essential part of our lives that some of us can’t imagine living without. And yet, all this has happened in a single generation.

The Short Version
  • Although our cultural software has evolved a lot over the last 10,000 years, our hardware has changed little. Our hardwired intuitions are those that allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive.

  • We relied on tribes to survive and so got very good at tracking relationships within our tribes.

  • All animals have a naturally stable group size. For humans, it’s about 150. This is known as the Dunbar Number. Go any higher, and relationships and communication start to disintegrate.

  • The rise of agriculture increased the size of human groups well beyond 150. To hold groups together past the Dunbar Number, we evolved complex belief systems that kept these ultra-societies together and directed their action.

  • Since most of humanity exists outside our personal Dunbar Number, we make sense of strangers by using stereotypes. It’s an essential tool… but those seeking power have long driven negative stereotypes to justify exclusion and violence against others.

  • Variations of the Golden Rule have been used by every culture to counteract negative stereotypes and build larger, stronger, diverse cultures. They invite us to realize that when we really know our enemy then we find out that he is just like us.

But while our technology, culture, and institutions make it possible for us to live in giant societies, our brains evolved to live in comparatively tiny tribes. And our brains haven’t changed.


Thanks to the work of a scientist named Robin Dunbar, we know there’s a cognitive limit to how many meaningful relationships the human brain can maintain. The Dunbar Number(s) varies with the strength of the connection, but the maximum limit for meaningful relationships is 150. This means that in groups larger than 150 things like trust, communication, and civility naturally disintegrate without some outside mechanism to maintain stability (we’ll get into that later).


Not coincidentally, hunter-gatherers lived in small tribes of 150. Periodically, tribes would come together to form larger bands to deal with a shared threat (often another bunch of people), but mostly human groups stayed small. In fact, the bulk of human history has been spent in these tightly knit groups until recently. However, the cognitive limit for a stable group is a mainstay of tribalism.

Humans in our hunter-gatherer past depended on the tribe for survival. Much of the time, despite their efforts, hunters fail to catch anything. That’s why hunter-gatherers work in tribes. You might have a good run of days where you’re catching lots of game, but if you’re having a dry spell then you’ll be really glad that you’re in a tribe of sharers.

“The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

Of course, if you were always better off in a pack, then why would anyone have the ability to act as a lone wolf? Because only looking out for number one has some advantages. You don’t have to rush in and save other pack members risking your own life and you can keep anything you catch for yourself. A tension between these different incentives exists. As evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson put it:


“Selfish individuals outcompete altruistic individuals.

Altruistic groups outcompete selfish groups.”


After the Stark pack was broken up, Sansa and Arya had to act as lone wolves. Now, they can reform the pack and thrive IF they behave altruistically and focus on the survival of the pack above themselves as individuals. The result is that for the pack to survive it has to keep an eye on anyone who is trying to act as a lone wolf and that’s where one of the most powerful tools in the human arsenal comes in: gossip.

Gossip has a bad reputation

People can say nasty things about each other and spread malicious rumors. They can ruin each other’s reputations which leads to shutting them out of the group unfairly. The result is that sometimes people think of gossip as a bug in our humanity. “Ugh! Wouldn’t we all be better off if humans didn’t gossip?” Actually, no. Gossip and teasing are the key to keeping egos in check and keeping an eye on anyone who is getting out of line so the pack can operate effectively.


Hunter-gatherer tribes were made up of people who all knew each other. They could tell who was pulling their weight and who wasn’t. They could call out people who were stealing from the group. And they intuitively knew that power needed to be checked with teasing and mechanisms of accountability.


Some tribes hunt with each other’s arrows. If someone brings down prey, then it is counted as the kill of the person who made the arrow. In other tribes, when people are elected chief, the first thing the group does is to mercilessly make fun of their new leader to keep them from becoming too arrogant. These mechanisms exist today. We caricature politicians and celebrities, and when someone starts hogging the ball on a football or basketball team his teammates make fun of him to keep him grounded. When people get a big head, they stop working as an effective member of the team. It becomes all about them and we all suffer. Gossip and teasing can be unhealthy but they also can help create healthier social dynamics. Knowing the difference between playful teasing and talking about each other in unhealthy ways is challenging enough within a group of 150 people but it’s what our brains evolved to do.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

– Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

And then, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture happened. Suddenly, hunter-gatherer tribes were replaced by societies of millions that were well beyond the Dunbar Number. Our technology may have changed but our brains’ limits did not.


Many of us have felt this discrepancy between what our technology makes possible and what our brains can handle when using social media. Many of us went on a friending frenzy when first on Facebook, adding EVERYONE. Fast forward a couple of years and suddenly “friends” were floating across our news feed that we didn’t recognize. Facebook has revealed that even though computers allow us to accumulate thousands and thousands of “friends” our brains can’t track all those relationships.


Agriculture changed a lot of things in culture; from how we looked at land, shifting from something that hadn’t belonged to anyone to something to be possessed, to the relationships between men and women. Suddenly, humans found themselves living in groups waaaaaaay larger than what the human brain can handle. Whereas previously tribes had been built out of people who knew each other, now tribes were held together by complex cultures that featured shared beliefs, shared rituals, bureaucratic and judicial systems and sacred symbols. Peter Turchin calls these groups ultrasocieites. More colloquially, they’re known as religions, Empires, Kingdoms, nations, corporations, charities, military units, shared hobbies, and colleges. Humans are so “groupish” as Jon Haidt puts it that we can build tribes around literally anything.


The problem is that our groupishness can easily turn very cliquey and exclusionary. The same tendency to split into groups that is the cornerstone of every American high school movie is repeated throughout human history.

The problem is that our groupishness can easily turn very cliquey and exclusionary. The same tendency to split into groups that is the cornerstone of every American high school movie is repeated throughout human history.

But while jocks vs nerds might escalate to the level of pranks, Persians vs Greeks, Chinese vs Mongols, NAZIs vs Jews, and Soviets vs Americans takes the rivalry to much more violent and extreme places.


In practice, typical members of these groups had very little knowledge of each other. Although stereotyping gets a bad rap, it began as a positive and essential tool to survival. You couldn’t know everyone from every tribe, so to make quick and helpful decisions when you met strangers, it was beneficial to be able to stereotype. It’s actually the basis of cultural sensitivity. For example, it’s culturally sensitive to assume that ALL Japanese people will be offended if you stick your chopsticks vertically upright in your rice because that’s what they do at funerals. It’s also culturally sensitive to assume that Arabs don’t want to see the bottom of your foot and that Americans don’t want to see Frenchmen wearing speedos. In such cases, the ability to stereotype guarantees that your interaction goes well.


The problem is when our stereotypes lead to writing off a whole group of people rather than being considerate of their culture. This is especially problematic because groups that don’t trust each other or fear each other don’t interact. This ignorance is vital to maintaining prejudice and humanity’s long history of tribal conflict. Mixed Mental Artist Adam Hansen calls this use of ignorance-based stereotypes Dumb-barring. (


Think about what you assume about these groups. How is their food? Are they friendly? Do you think they have a good grasp on reality?





Gays and Lesbians.






The French.

The Germans.

The Dutch.

The Uzbeks.

Take Your Pick

You may not know enough about some groups to feel strongly about them but other people do. For example, there are only two things Austin Powers’ dad — played by Michael Caine — can’t stand.

Although stereotyping has gotten a bad rap, it is an unavoidable feature of having a brain that can only handle 150 relationships in a world with 7.5 billion people. The point isn’t to fight our natural tendency to stereotype but rather to question what those stereotypes are based on. Some are well-founded and useful while others are not.

This happens on social media today. Looking at the violence of ISIS, the bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church, the self-righteousness of Social Justice Warriors on American college campuses or the arrogance of some scientists, it is easy to get fooled into thinking that all Muslims, Christians, Liberals or Scientists are like that. 

Throughout history, it has been politically and economically convenient for religious and political leaders to encourage deliberate Dumb-barring. As Dave Grossman suggests in On Killing, humans have a psychological aversion to killing other humans. In order to make them do that, they have to be taught to think of some other group as monstrous. As inhuman. There is a predictable pattern to genocides not just in who is targeted— middleman minorities—but also in the emotional rhetoric that precedes the genocide: it builds disgust for the targeted group as vermin, rats or cockroaches who need extermination.


The idea that Jews have horns may seem ridiculous now but at the time that Shylock addressed the Christians of Venice it was widely believed. Comedy has the ability to make this type of Dumb-barringseem as ridiculous as it is.


On social media, the more common attitude is just to dismiss entire groups as not worth listening to or as “part of the problem.” We see one post, a comment or a hashtag and the human mind fills in and tells us a story about who that person is. At this point, we’ve also been on the receiving end of this. We say one thing and people come back at us with the strangest ideas about who we are.


The solution to combating prejudices against people with different skin colors, faiths, genders, or political worldviews has always been to get to know someone who you think of as the enemy. In this regard, the ultimate master is Daryl Davis. In the documentary Accidental Courtesy, Davis tells about how growing up internationally, he was never exposed to racism. When he moved to America and confronted it he had two options: he could write off racists and dismiss them or he could look past the stereotype and get to know the people. And so, as an adult, Davis engages in an unusual hobby for a black man in America: he befriends members of the KKK.

Simply by befriending them and helping them out, he works his way into their Dunbar Number. Once they have a black friend, the members of the Klan find it much harder to maintain their prejudices. Over 200 of them have left the Klan. Davis’ core advice, “Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.” If enough of us use social media to start talking to our supposed enemies, then what chance does the fighting stand?

It feels good to feel like the good guys. It feels good to feel like there are bad guys. It feels good to feel like your team is in a righteous struggle against the other side. In fact, it speaks to what William James described as the deepest principle in human nature: “the craving to be appreciated.” We want to feel like we matter. We want to feel special.

That desire isn’t going away. However, just like hunger for food or sexual impulse, we can satisfy our desire to be appreciated in ways that are harmful or helpful to ourselves and others. Throughout human history, the desire to be appreciated has led people to make large displays of their virtuousness. The world of social media has only amplified that. You can now show all your friends how much you hate racism, how much you are outraged about the “war on Christmas” or about how much better your kids are than all other kids. And yet, the one person you can’t fool is you. Daryl Davis is now getting some appreciation from the world for everything he’s done to lessen racism but he did all this long before he got any credit. Why? Because instead of just talking the talk, he decided to walk the walk.


You can wrap yourself in the flag. You can make a big show of your faith. You can talk about how you love science. But are you actually practicing what you preach? The key to making an impact is to be the change you wish to see in the world, to do unto others as you wish they’d do unto you.


Daryl Davis engaged in simple acts of courtesy to people who despised him for the color of his skin. He drove them to see their families in jail. When the Klan couldn’t get a bus for their rally because they were the Klan, Daryl Davis lent them his van so they could go tell the world how terrible people like him were. Simply by practicing the golden rule, Daryl Davis helped make 200 of the most prejudiced people unable to hold onto their prejudices any longer. Imagine if we all behaved that way. If you find Daryl Davis inspiring, then let him inspire you to go and do likewise. And if you do it, you’ll inspire more people. And on it goes.


And this is the secret to overcoming the petty tribalism and the focus on symbols that flood social media right now.


Although anger and outrage dominate the conversation, there’s actually an emotion that’s more viral than all of them…but that’s a story for another belt.


The KKK members believed that black people were their enemies. But then they met Daryl Davis and they found it difficult to hate him, proving Abraham Lincoln’s response to criticism for wanting benevolent treatment of Southern rebels.

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
– Abraham Lincoln
bottom of page