“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“.