When Do Tribal Attitudes Develop?

The long term fate of the human race will ultimately depend on our ability to overcome our tribal roots. It won’t be easy. Until very recently, maintaining an “us” vs. “them” view was necessary for survival. Those who were too trusting of other groups or who failed to protect their own kind often found themselves pillaged or killed.

The relative ease of survival and the collective nature of modern problems has changed all that. Tribalism may now be somewhat maladaptive. We dislike those who have different attitudes, and that leads to unnecessary conflict and violence. Furthermore, our tribal nature has taken many issues that aren’t zero-sum and effectively turned them into zero-sum games. Nobody wants to pay the cost for benefits that will be spread over the entire world (e.g. cutting back on carbon emissions.) In the long run, the future of the human species will depend on whether we can overcome the boundaries that separate us and band together to focus on what’s in the best interest of the human race (i.e. what happens in every alien invasion movie.) The big question is how easy this will be.

A new study about the development of “us” vs. “them” attitudes provides both good and bad news. In a series of experiments psychologists Neha Mahajan and Karen Wynn had 11-month-old infants select either one of two foods, or one of two different colored mittens. They then had the infants watch as puppets “selected” the various foods and mittens. When later given a chance to select a puppet, the infants were more likely to choose the puppet that demonstrated similar preferences. The results showed that like adults, even pre-lingual infants perform a “like me”/”not like me” cognitive comparison that leads to a preference for those who are similar to themselves. The fact that these tribal preferences are so deeply ingrained does not bode well for our ability to one day ignore our differences.

There was also some good news in the study. Unlike adults, infants were not swayed by arbitrary similarities. When the infants were assigned a specific color of mittens rather than choosing it on their own, they were not more likely to pick the puppet who shared their mitten color.

Infants’ lack of preference for the similar puppet in our Random-Assignment condition could indicate that for infants, similarities in attitude are more significant bases on which to generate social preferences than are mere perceptual similarities.

For an issue like climate change, the results suggest that what’s deeply ingrained is not to side with those who share your place of birth or skin color, it’s to side with those who actually share your attitudes on climate change. Obviously those groups eventually become intertwined through social and cultural development, but the fact that they are initially separate bodes better for our ability to work together. The study comes with all the caveats about small sample sizes and working with infants, but it’s an interesting piece in what should ultimately be an important area of research.
Mahajan N, & Wynn K (2012). Origins of “Us” versus “Them”: Prelinguistic infants prefer similar others. Cognition PMID: 22668879


3 Responses to When Do Tribal Attitudes Develop?

  1. Luke K says:

    That’s an interesting study. The attitudes and attrubutes of our children may never change. I agree when you state, “The fact that these tribal preferences are so deeply ingrained does not bode well for our ability to one day ignore our differences.” I like how the study uses 11 month old children instead of three or four year olds. We find out amazing things about ourselves at an early age.

  2. ouafae says:

    I agree with your idea of “us” VS “them”, you see that a lot in today’s society especially in high schools or even work. People will always be in a competitive mode against other groups causing more problems, and not solving any. I also agree with your idea of how if one group can’t protect its own then some will be killed or hurt, that’s also seen in today’s society where in groups like gangs, people die all the time because some of their members cant keep the information to themselves. also, attitude plays a big part in groups, if you don’t have the right idea, confidence, same life style, same likes-which all these influence a person’s attitude then the group that you might want to join won’t accept you because of your different attitude.

  3. Amie C. says:

    This Correlation study is very interesting! The roots we live with are implanted in us from a very early age just like this study shows. This study examines how strongly the two infants are associated with the color of the mittens! It is very interesting to see the results of this and how far down the roots go!

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