From Multi-Culturalist to Tribalist: Rewiring My Brain

From Multi-culturalist to Tribalist: Rewiring My Brain

I used the word ‘tribe’ extensively in previous essays.  It has become a portmanteau concept packing into one word various observations of individual and social relationships, and giving structure to my thought and essays.  For most of my life I would have used tribe in the context of anthropology, for example, ‘there are Native American Indian and African tribes.’  I now have a more complex usage.  How did that happen?

A history of the 20th century could be written as the end of empires and the counter-story of anti-colonial and independence movements, of the desire to associate with and be ruled by people like themselves rather than by foreigners with different languages, appearance, mores, and religions.  That is a definition of tribalism.

From Multi-culturalist to Tribalist

Break time!  I had finished fixing the tennis court lights and I was listening to a talk show on the local lefty radio station before driving to the next job.  I only listened to this station because the classical music station was playing a string quartet and it was too early for Rush Limbaugh, another escape from music to suffer by.  A panelist described a public figure as a “feisty tribalist.”  Although I had never before heard that usage, I immediately understood the implied set of relationships: social groups, tribes, in conflict and an individual seeking to protect the tribe.

The conversation on the talk show continued, “up with inclusivism and down with tribalism.”  Oh yes, I wanted to be an inclusivist.  The ideals of equal rights and social justice had captured me 30 years earlier during the 1960’s, the years of my coming of age.  I wanted to be that more moral person with those values.  But in the next years, something changed and I discovered my inner tribalist by watching myself in action, by noting how I interacted with individuals of different ‘tribes.’

A few years after the concept of a ‘tribalist’ was implanted into my brain, a friend was talking about his wife, Iris Tiedt, a well-known educator and leader in the multi-culturalism movement.  She wanted her students to become more multi-cultural, sensitive, and inclusive.  She lamented that what she saw as morally right and necessary was not understood and accepted by many of her students.  As John told this story I built a quite different one in my mind.  Off the top of my head I simply turned the moral issue upside down and asked him if Iris had any idea why many people were not naturally multi-cultural.  “We are naturally racist, classist, sexist, and ageist.  We are tribal.  Iris is trying to teach her students to be something they are by nature not.”

By that time, I had realized that I was not multi-cultural – I was racist, classist, sexist, and ageist despite my ideals.  And in those moments the concept of tribalism coalesced all of my observations into the simple statement “we are a tribal species.”

Many years of moral endeavor had not reformed me and had scarcely diminished my innate tribalism.  Am I a morally bad person?  No, I am only human with mind that was finely honed over millions of years of evolution.  Tribalism is a cognitive bias, a part of human nature, and the way my brain operates.  In that short response to John I rewired my brain with new words in my mind and a new pattern useful for understanding myself.  I had in those years traversed the narrative arc from multi-culturalism to tribalism.

Have I lost or rejected my inclusivist idealism?  No.  I have arrived, by a complex path, with a very different understanding, and a new meta-story about tribalism and inclusivism.  Tribalism is the more ancient system and inclusivism or multi-culturalism is very recent.  Tribalism says that there are social boundaries, inside and outside the group, member or non-member, and that those divisions are part of our ancient evolutionarily generated nervous system.  I am not a moral abomination.  I have an ancient tribal mind in today’s multi-cultural environment, the result of movement of people around the world.

“Why can’t we all just get along?” 

That heart-felt query is an expression of an everyday observation: we don’t just all get along.

The ‘Human Relations Department’ gathered a bunch of us troglodytes from the corporation yards in a conference room with the intent to teach us to be multi-cultural.  They showed us a training video, presumably purchased at some expense, that depicted various racial conflicts at an imaginary manufacturing company.  We were then divided into small groups to discuss those events and how we might have handled the conflicts better.  After that we gathered together once again to review what we had learned.  There were the usual half-hearted ‘just tell them what they told us’ type responses to make the presenter happy.  As they died down, I raised my hand and upon being recognized I asked him a simple question.  “Did you notice that all the ass holes in the video were blue collar workers on the shop floor and all the good guys were nicely dressed professional managers?  That video is classist.  The blue collars are depicted as being racist and the bad guys, and the white collars as multi-cultural, the good guys.

I had never before seen someone lose control of themselves.  For about 10 seconds the presenter literally babbled.  He had lost all control of his thinking and speaking.  When he finally got some control of himself, he confessed that they had little trouble in the corporation yards and that City Hall was where there were real problems.

There is a deeper point to this story.  There was sufficient racial conflict at some places in the city to justify the purchase of the system and the cost of our lost hours of work.  We don’t all get along.

Why We Don’t All Just Get Along: The Fast Response Danger System

It was a Saturday morning.  I was young, 23, and our daughter had recently been born.  I was working in the front yard and saw a strange young man walking up the sidewalk.  His face was odd and his gait uneven.  I was alarmed, afraid for my children, and literally ran him off telling him to go away and added “and don’t come back.”  At the same time, I was yelling at him there was simultaneously another perception, that he was not dangerous but that perception was being over-ridden by the fast danger response.  By the time I got into the house my danger perception had subsided and I could now understand that he was not a danger.  There was something different about him that I had not seen before and didn’t understand.  He was not dangerous, just different, and I was ashamed for I had done him wrong.  Today I would recognize him as having Down’s Syndrome and I am still ashamed.

My survival rules, those neural functions that map experience to perception to reaction, had equated difference with danger and I responded with fear.  This is the fast system that in the context of some differences detects danger and issues the fear and protection response.  The re-appraisal of my response and my shame is a function of the slow system and is a feedback loop to the fast system.  I did wrong, so that particular danger reaction is damped in the future.  Had I approved of my behavior, had I told myself that I had successfully protected my children, that danger reaction would have been amplified in the future.

I had not seen Down’s Syndrome before, so I did not have that pattern available to my perceptual pattern matching system.  I now recognize that developmental disorder and this demonstrates that I have acquired a new, more accurate and reliable mental pattern together with a better response.  I can match my perception of facial features, gait and language difficulty, to Down’s Syndrome and no longer have a danger response.  This illustrates the mutual functioning of the fast and slow system.  The danger response has to be fast.  The appraisal, tuning or retuning, of the danger system can be slow.  Both functions are necessary for survival.

I picked up the tribal pattern quite by accident and slowly came to understand it as the best pattern available to interpret my behavior and by extension the behavior of others.  I interpret tribalism using concepts borrowed from evolutionary psychology, and in particular from Kahneman and Tversky: my fast system that senses danger or seeks advantage is tribal and my slow system that evaluates and criticizes my slow system is, or has been taught to be, multi-cultural and inclusivist.  The fast/tribal system tends to compute visual and aural differences as danger.  My slow system says “no that is not correct.  They may look or sound different but that does not ipso facto make them dangerous.”

Tribalism is part of the danger system and is a fundamental part of human nature.  The specific tuning of the that system may be learned.  The slow system that evaluates the fast/tribal response may or may not be able to modify the fast system response.  The specific tribal parameters of the fast system are learned but being incorporated into the fear and alarm circuits are difficult to unlearn.  Danger is learned fast, frequently by one experience, and is un-learned slowly if at all.

Tribalism also functions at other levels, particularly a general assumption of superiority of one’s tribe over others.  We are more intelligent and have a superior culture and morality.  They are dirty, ugly, ignorant, untrustworthy, and immoral.  Tribalism is the individual and collective detection of danger, of caring for and protecting of one’s own from these dangers.  There are perceptions that will release self-protection and perceptions that release tribal protection.  Tribal protection may take precedence over self-protection, the individual may sacrifice himself/herself for the good of the tribe.  Military units deliberately form unit cohesion so that when necessary an individual may fall upon a hand grenade to save his buddies.

There was a time when tribalism was survival.  Multi-culturalism and inclusivism are now necessary.  We live in a multi-cultural multi-ethnic world.  Our survival is no longer that of a small foraging gatherer-hunter society, nor within a single ethnic and linguistic group, or a nation.  Our survival now depends our ability to solve world-wide problems across all tribalisms.  We now live in a much more demographically compressed and complex environment where multi-culturalism and inclusivism has become necessary to survival.  My inversion of socio-moral values within my survival rules, from natural tribalism to necessary multiculturalism, is most uncomfortable, discommoding, and distressing.  “I am a tribalist.  I should not be.  I should be an inclusivist.  I am not.”  I try to be.


I well remember some intellectual dictums of the 1960’s.  Thou shalt not anthropomorphize: do not impute human perceptions and emotions to other animals.  They do not have emotions.  We have complex emotions.  They have instincts.  We have learning.  Our brains are tabula rasas, blank slates, upon which learning creates the human, writing our mental abilities upon our nervous systems.  Under this model, tribalisms are learned and what is learned can be unlearned.  Being good, being moral can be taught.

Dr. Tiedt was born in 1928 and her education would have been under the tabula rasa model.  She was an educator and the combination of those two paths resulted in her conviction that multi-culturalism and inclusivism could be taught.  So, she wrote books and conducted seminars.  Hence her perplexity as she observed that multi-culturalism could not be easily or efficiently taught, her students were not ‘getting it.’  She was unable to comprehend her cognitive dissonance: my students should be learning to be multi-cultural but they are not.  I have interpreted her perplexity as an excellent example of path dependency.  She could only interpret her perceptions within the context of the patterns available in her mind, viz, the learning model.

The tribal model of human behavior was not within her intellectual path.  Should she have encountered it, she would probably have rejected it.  It would not have resonated in her mind and would not have rewired her brain.  She could not have understood tribalism.  She did understand that tribalism in a multi-cultural society is a serious problem and believed that education was the solution.  Apply enough pressure and human nature can be molded.

If tribalism – the cognitive bias that visual and aural differences in people may a danger signal – is part of our evolutionary heritage and may be considered to be instinctual, then what may be said of the moralization, the guilt tripping, of tribalists by some segments of the political discourse?  Do tribalists become inclusivists by calling them racist, sexist, ageist, classist, or homophobic?  I see two somewhat different responses, again distributed on some curve.  First, a tribalist may refuse the guilt by denying to the accuser the power to rewire their brain.  For these individuals, guilt tripping increases tribalism rather than decreasing it.  Second, a tribalist may allow the modification of the slow danger evaluation system, “I should be more inclusive” and that in turn may alter the fast danger response.  That may be the most that can be expected.  Guilt tripping may not teach multi-culturalism and inclusivism, and teaching them may not increase them.

I wrote most of this essay in first person and occasionally suggested that the psychology of other individuals would be similar to mine.  This is, of course, incomplete as most attributes are distributed on some curve.  There will be differences in the construction of individual survival rules that map perception to reaction.  Individuals will differ in their tribalisms, both in the specific perceptions that trigger tribalism, and in the response and its intensity.

I borrowed the concept of our brain’s operation on a fast danger and slow evaluation system from evolutionary psychology.  The fast system appears to be largely unconscious.  It is difficult to perceive and understand its values, logic, and operation.  The Implicit Association Test (q.v.) appears be a probe into the workings of the unconscious portion of our survival rules and the fast danger response system.

I wrote that that difference may be a danger signal, a weak form of the assertion, rather than the strong form, difference is a danger signal.  We do not always respond tribally to difference.  Tribalism is only one attribute of a social species.  Homo sapiens is a most curious, cooperative and empathic species.  These attributes extend beyond tribal boundaries.  Empathy is the ability to connect through difference to similarity and to cross the boundaries of tribalism.  Curiosity is “wow! That’s interesting.”  Cooperation is “so what if we are different, we have common goals, needs and desires, and can work together.”  We can and do behave most un-tribally, particularly in mate selection.  Difference does not always compute as danger.  There are multiple other signals, perceptions and behaviors.

Under tribal conflict the mind goes into a self-protective mode as a different set of behaviors, values, morals, and motivations such as de-personalization, demonization, and enemification: tribal protective behaviors leading to conquest, dispossession, expropriation, and exploitation.  The individual becomes capable of the most horrifying atrocities and can be proud of them rather than being incapacitated by guilt.  Tribalism inverts socio-moral values and replaces guilt with triumph and joy, with tribal absolution and tribal psychopathy.

I deliberately omitted the demographics of tribalism, the deep reason we are tribal.  That is a topic for another time, for another series of essays, wherein I will take up the topic of “the inversion of socio-moral values within our survival rules.”


This subject of tribalism is, of course, much larger and worthy of a book or three:

Junger, Sebastian, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, 2016, ISBN 978-14555-6638-9

Chua, Amy, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, 2018, ISBN  9780399562853

Ms. Chua uses the phrase ‘group instinct’ in the title.  Contrary to the tabula rasa model where virtually all human attributes are learned, Amy asserts that tribalism is instinctual.  To this I have added the idea that the specific tuning of that instinctual system will have elements of learning, and that once learned by the fast system, are difficult to unlearn.  What is instinctive is that visual and story differences are interpreted as danger signals.

Bradley, James, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, ISBN 978-0-316-10584-2

World War II provided examples of tribalism.  That of the Holocaust in Europe is well known.  Less known are the atrocities in the Pacific Theatre.  Bradley tells of the tribalism behind the atrocities, on both sides of the theatre, and in particular the tribal truth stories that explained, exculpated and bolstered those tribalisms.

It is not a story for the faint of heart and I was emotionally incapable of reading past the first few chapters.  It should be read by anyone interested in the subject of tribalism, their truth stories, and the consequences thereof.

May I also refer a reader to my previous essay for more of my conceptual framework of tribalism.

For the fast and slow system see:,_Fast_and_Slow and:

Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, ISBN 978-0374275631

I extended his model of human behavior into fast perception of danger and release of the danger response followed by a slow appraisal of that perception and reaction, and subsumed tribalism within that model.

I used the concept of danger extensively in my discussion of tribalism.   I could have used fear:

Marsh, Abigail, The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, & Everyone In-Between  ISBN 978-1-54169-719-5

For absolution of tribal protective behaviors, see any of the recent accounts of Special Services warfare, especially snipers who are very protective of the troops under their over-watch.  The book and movie American Sniper are excellent examples.  I recommend this review: