Do you belong to a tribe?


Dan Shapiro has an extremely interesting article in the latest American Psychologist (65:7), entitled, “Relational Identity Theory: A Systematic Approach for Transforming the Emotional Dimension of Conflict.” In it he describes a “tribes” experiment where he has a group of people break up into 6 groups. After each group forms its own identity (50 Minutes), he sends in an alien creature who says,

I have come to destroy earth. I will give you one opportunity to save the world from utter destruction. You must choose one tribe as the tribe for everyone. You must all take on the attributes of that tribe. You cannot change or bargain over any attributes. If you cannot come to full agreement by the end of three rounds of negotiations…the world will be destroyed. (p. 634)

He reports that he has done this exercise nearly 100 times and across a wide diversity of participants. Nearly every time the world blows up. Tribes “clung to their invented identities, amplified their differences, and ended up in deadlock and destruction.” (p. 635)

Why? Emotional dimensions of conflict are not addressed. He believes that many see political conflicts as primarily rational conversations rather than emotions entangled with identity and loyalty.

What makes for a tribe? Shapiro sees three things: Likekinded, kinlike, and emotionally invested in group’s enhancement. As tribes work and live together and face external threats, they “rigidify” their identities and beliefs–even with other groups who are nearly identical. He quotes a line from Freud–narcissism of minor differences–to illustrate how trivial differences may spawn vociferous debate and hostility. In a footnote, he notices that certain events can make for greater tribal warfare: one leader argues too much for their own positions, a leader is seen as aggressive, a group feels slighted, too many voices in the discussions, and no consideration given for the process of negotiation.

How do you reduce tribalism and thus political stalemates? He lists some tasks:

1. Identify lines of loyalty (figuring out the groups with interest in a tribe)

2. Paying attention to identity concerns (what are tribe’s concerns in negotiating with another group?)

3. Addressing these concerns by supporting autonomy and building affiliation across groups.

Seems this works even in marriage counseling. Though in marital conflict, there may only be one tribal member for each tribe, you can see how emotions maintain the conflict and that when one is able to repeatedly join with the concerns of the other, the rigidity decreases over time.

And notice how other-centeredness breaks down tribal differences. Kinda fits with Philippians 2…

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Filed under counseling science, Psychology

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