Choosing your tribe – them and us

“In Ireland you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it.” 


So wrote J.G. Farrell in his 1970 novel Troubles. While much of what has happened politically in 2016 has felt both tribal and irrational to me, psychology suggests that we don’t even need big issues to persuade us to pick our tribe. Developed at much the same time that Farrell published his novel, Henri Tajfel’s minimal group experiments show how easy – how frighteningly easy – it is for us to do this.

Minimal groups can be formed using arbitrary criteria.  A coin toss can be used to divide people randomly into two groups. A simple task, such as distributing small amounts of money, results in people favouring members of their own group. This happens even when there is no objective difference between group members and the distribution is performed anonymously.

This result led Tajfel with others including John Turner, to develop Social Identity Theory (SIT). SIT can be used as a way of explaining the minimal group results, but more importantly, can perhaps shed light on what happens in everyday life outside of laboratory experiments.

SIT argues that we categorise ourselves and others into different groups. A process of social identification occurs over time, where we decide which groups we identify with. Our decisions on group membership are influenced by others already in a particular group whose attitudes and beliefs we wish to emulate. Finally, our self-esteem is boosted by positive comparisons of our own group against others. It can also be damaged if other groups are held in higher regard by society than ours.

The need to pick our tribe, regardless of how rational or irrational that choice may seem to others, would therefore seem to be an inbuilt characteristic of humanity. Which of the tribes that we belong to is most important to us at any point in time depends on how salient the social identity it embodies becomes. If that identity feels threatened, then we often cling to it even harder.

It would seem to me that the events of the last week demonstrate that the most salient political identity in the UK at the moment is how pro-EU (or anti-EU) we feel. How else would you explain the truly wonderful result for Sarah Olney in the Richmond Park by-election if that was not the case? How else would you explain the willingness of many people to work across traditional party political divides to make sure that we don’t drive our economy off a cliff? Or how else would you explain a large slice of the electorate still voting for the ‘independent’ ex-incumbent anyway?

Long may the country’s new-found passion for the EU continue. I have chosen my tribe and for the first time in some years, I feel rather good about being a member.

My response to the recent Post40Bloggers writing prompt number 104: “Them and Us“.

Explaining the Labour leadership contest using social identity theory

How does a candidate with a policy position that is perceived to be much more extreme than the consensus within a party win a leadership election? Social identity theory – SIT(*) may have the answer.

If the Labour leadership election had been held when the members(-) of the party (the ingroup in SIT terms) perceived the threat from the Conservatives and others of keeping them out of power for a long time was not great, then it is possible that the debate and decision-making process within the party would have been conducted primarily an intragroup contest, as illustrated below.

Labour leadership contest as an intragroup decision
How Labour party MPs thought the leadership contest would be fought

The candidates would have been keen to distinguish themselves from one another and the perceptions of differences between each would have been heightened by debate within the party. However, the likelihood would have been that the candidate who best represented what party members held in common would be seen as most relevant (prototypical) – resulting in a victory for either Burnham or Cooper.

However, these aren’t the circumstances that Labour finds itself in. May’s election results came as a huge shock to many of their members and they trail the Conservatives (the outgroup) by a large margin in the polls nationally. SIT research would suggest that this external threat therefore makes the leadership campaign an intergroup contest instead of an intragroup one. Presumably, the Labour MPs that opposed but lent Jeremy Corbyn their support anyway during the nomination process weren’t SIT aficionados. In such cases, SIT would suggest that the most left-wing of the quartet gains in relevance amongst party members as they are perceived to be the most different to the outgroup.

The Labour leadership contest as an intergroup contest
How the Labour leadership contest has really been fought

So if Jeremy Corbyn does win the contest in a few days time, SIT suggests that it will have been less to do with internal problems of left-wing entryists and rather more to do with external macro-political pressures.



(*) Social Identity Theory was originally developed by Henri Tajfel and others to try to understand why people believe that the social groups they belong to are better than the ones that other people belong to and why enmity often accompanies these beliefs.

(-) By members, I’m including everyone that Labour has decided is eligible to vote in their leadership election.

(+) Diagrams are adapted from page 109 of Psychology in Organizations – The Social Identity Approach (2nd Edition, published 2004) by S. A. Haslam.