The Power of Tribes


We know that tribalism is human nature. And this is no surprise. One can only imagine the fate of someone being expelled from their tribe into wild nature. As such, it only makes sense that this instinct has survived thousands of years..

Now, before diving deeper I do need to get something off my chest. I recently read an article by James Currier about the tribal network effect. A total light bulb moment, it all made sense. Authority, social currency, and consistency are all wrapped in one concept. When I sent this article to a friend for review, I was quickly told that what I am concluding is very close to what Robert Cialdini calls Unity. Now it’s been a while since I read his work (about 16 years) so I quickly ordered the latest edition and there it was. I don’t know if I should feel proud or frustrated but here we are. Tribalism is such a powerful tool in the behavior change toolbox that it warrants some more focus.

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” – Bondei proverb. Photo by Suiyobish via Shutterstock.

Cialdini makes an insightful distinction. Saying “this person is like us” is not the same as saying “this person is one of us”. The latter would imply a high degree of unity which has an impact on our behavior. For example, studies have shown that people opposed a war more when they learned that someone

from their home state was killed. Any movement on such a politically sensitive issue must have a

powerful force behind it.

Why is this important? Because within in-groups we see high degrees of agreement, trust, and collaboration. Recall that in the first chapter we highlighted the risk of not reaching certain groups of the population if we are not careful about the initial, attention-generating messaging.

If the message is not in line with the belief system of a particular group, then it will be ignored or dismissed. Agreement on an issue that conflicts with the view of one’s group would not only create internal friction via a lack of consistency but might also lead to expulsion from said group.

What makes tribalism so powerful. From Nir Eyal’s work, we also know that we need triggers and variable rewards. First, tribes communicate. Interaction within the group supports these instincts perfectly. People interact which naturally triggers action with rewards being highly variable. If I send you a message, I create a trigger for you to react to. This is why products with infrequent use are unlikely to create habits. Facebook is more likely to create a habit than GEICO. Regarding rewards: Your action might not only be acknowledged but also receive praise or an invite for dinner. Recently, I told a friend that her plastic waste reduction efforts truly inspire me to do better myself. Later, I learned that this, in turn, pushed her to do more even when she struggled with the effort. If you inspire people in your in-group, you can’t be the one dropping the ball. People also perform in line with the perception others have of them. If others think, and voice, that you are charitable you will act more charitable as a result. Consistency is another one, of course, you don’t want to be the oddball that changes course. The more people follow the same belief system, the higher the pressure on the individual to follow as well.

The same goes for the investment part which, within a group, often takes the form of co-creation.

Yes, the IKEA effect one feels when completing a masterpiece is strong (oh, the pride of looking at a perfectly assembled FJÄLLBO). However, the effect becomes even stronger when we co-create something making collective actions within a group incredibly powerful. In my opinion, this is one of the most important areas to focus on. James Currier makes a great point when he talks about tribalism being a network effect holding tremendous competitive advantages. Just look at sports teams – the us vs them mentality is a powerful component of brand value here, no wonder private equity is licking its lips looking at the sector.

Illegal fishing operations are linked to terror organizations. Photo by Venera Salman via Pexels.

On the other hand, Robert Cialdini cites several examples where rivaling groups become a unit, a new and larger tribe, after overcoming severe obstacles. Hence, shared challenges may produce unlikely allies. No matter if you are anti-immigration or pro-refugee-rights, you should be inclined to fight climate change due to the mass displacement that will result from it. And, while it’s not directly related, let’s stay look into fishing. Overfishing in the Gulf of Aden has resulted in an increase in piracy. This is directly linked to the financing of terrorist organizations. Al-Shabaab is a major beneficiary, a terrorist group that has killed 4,000 civilians and kidnapped 4,400 children. Imagine your child being stolen from you knowing that their only future is being a child soldier. Need some sake to flush down the pain attached to that tuna sashimi? Realize how anti-terrorism and veganism are related here? I’m not trying to cause a revolt against Japanese cuisine here, rather I hope we all come to realize that certain challenges are so grant, all of our interests are aligned. Climate change probably being the largest.

One thing is clear, however, we are too polarized to focus on the common ground. As such, how can we approach this issue? Perhaps telling stories about individuals within a certain in-group can serve as a starting point.

As more people adopt the narrative the system changes from an emotional focus on one to the social pressure of many. The resulting groups can, then, be merged along the lines of common interest in fighting climate change. This is a huge task, of course, because the initial storytelling may be corrupted by political interests. It is far too easy for the left to blame the right, and vice versa, which results in groups that, while theoretically connected by their desire to fight climate change, feel stronger in-group alignment in their hate for the opposing party. Technology may provide an interesting tool here. Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has attracted 21 million visitors in 2019. What if we could create an impact-focused ride, leveraging Disney’s amazing storytelling power? This can be supplemented with an initial ask which, as we know, serves as the perfect foundation for additional asks in the future slowly nudging the audience into the desired behavior and sustaining it. Could we add community building as well? Applying friction principles where it is now undesirable to leave the community? We need to collectively move towards the greater good and personally I see this as a lower-hanging fruit than changing the status quo of cross-political toxicity.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. Tribalism is a force that can easily be exploited in the wrong hands which may lead to tragic outcomes. Sure, some instances of tribalism lead to amusing stories like with Dorothy Martin and her group who believed that spacemen would come. However, tribalism has also killed countless humans for example via terrorist attacks like 9/11 and cults as shown by the Jonestown Massacre. If we truly intend to do good, we need accountability, more than that, we need authenticity.

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