Why Are Tribalism and Irrational Behavior Flourishing?
Robert A. Levine
Tribalism, nationalism and populism have exploded over the last several decades. The most important reason for this may be the need for people to belong to a group, often giving them a feeling of superiority to others. In their belonging, they often vote with their group, disregarding facts or ignorant of who stands for what in the contests. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University believes that most voters are irrational rather than ignorant when they make their choices in the voting booth, examining this concept in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Voters have systemic biases that move policies in certain directions. They may also be more impressionable than expected, accepting false or skewed information as valid without analysis because they are pleased by the way a candidate sounds, looks, or dresses, or because their group supports this candidate. Indeed, voters’ beliefs may not emerge coherently from the facts due to irrationality, from ignorance, a lack of interest or ignoring evidence.
The idea that humans are irrational in their decisions has come from many sources, reinforced by the behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. Though their work was applied particularly to economics, it is true in the way people make all their choices, including political ones. Everyone has biases that influence decisions. Emotions and past experiences may play a role. In picking candidates to support, the wording of slogans may strike emotional chords, eliciting positive or negative reactions. A study at University College London suggests that rational behavior may depend on ability to override automatic emotional reactions to stimuli and not a complete absence of emotions. Can citizens with more knowledge about politics and government act more rationally than others when voting?
That our decisions are rational has also been challenged by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernback in their book The Knowledge Illusion. They believe that human beings seldom think for themselves, instead tending to think in groups. Because existence is becoming more complex with knowledge in many areas expanding geometrically, men and women are unable to master the flood of information and depend on experts to explain the universe and how things work. In addition to scientific data, facts regarding politics, economics, technology, and what is happening in the world come from sources other than our own experiences. And many of our beliefs are molded by the groups of which we are a part instead of our own thought processes. Even scientific facts may not change people’s ideas of reality, as we have seen with global warming.
Illustrating this mind set, avid partisans are bound to political tribal cultures that have specific world-views and provide information for their adherents, making it unnecessary for individuals to gather their own data on different issues and candidates. These cultures stamp their supporters with defined identities, making it difficult for tribal members to adopt contrasting ideas or switch political parties. And each tribe gets its news from designated sources, with major differences in how matters are interpreted. Many people vote for a particular party’s candidates because their family, friends and neighbors also back that party. In certain regions of the country, voting for a party’s candidates verge on automatic, without second thoughts.
Large proportions of GOP and Democratic tribal cultures adhere to rigid social beliefs in opposition to each other, such as on abortion, same sex marriage, and gun control. Because of these differences, they demonize each other and have trouble communicating and compromising on other issues. Tribal members’ economic interests may not motivate them to vote for candidates as much as stances on social issues. There are some who see the nation’s elections as a cultural civil war, with white rural Christian America fighting against urban diversity and demographic changes. Tribal cultures may have different viewpoints on morality and virtuous conduct, believing themselves morally superior to opposing tribes. In fact, differing convictions may be seen as immoral, leading to disdain and hatred for other tribes, prompting social separation, in-group loyalty and an unwillingness to work with opponents. This problem escalates when morality is conceived in absolute terms. Political tribal adherence has grown over the years, substituting for other groups that have faded, but once provided a sense of community and belonging. These included unions, churches, clubs, lodges, VFWs, and so forth. Many were remnants of an old-time America that is now mostly gone. Instead, Americans are left with belonging to political tribes which are as divisive as much as inclusive.