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Origins of our tribal nature

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Tribalism is a double-edged sword. Via our neurobiology, tribalism is a natural part of all of us and can be used for good or bad outcomes. Being aware of how our brains operate is helpful to identify and appropriately prevent being unknowingly influenced by tribalism. Our culture and technology are impacting our tribal nature. Be that as it may, the neurobiology-based human condition driving tribalistic tendencies will be with us for a very, very long time.

Graphic by: John Hain

This article is presented in the following sections:

  1. Introduction and motivation

  2. Neurotransmitter background

  3. Neurodiversity and out-grouping

  4. An example of political party formation

  5. Conclusion

  6. Notes

1. Introduction

People are tribal by nature. Our individual nature is fundamental to how tribes are formed and maintained. Today, tribes are generically called “organizations.” Political parties are certainly notable examples of tribes. COVID-19 vaccine development organization is another example of a tribe. Hate groups, the mafia, cults, religions, families, countries, companies, and football teams are other examples. As you probably noticed from the examples, tribes may have positive or negative connotations. Tribal formation by itself is not good or bad. It is the tribal mission and outcomes that get judged as to whether or not they are good for society. A tribe creates a sense of “us” versus “them.” Members of the “us” group are the “good guys” and get the benefit of the doubt. This group is in the trust circle. Members of the “them” group may be considered the “bad guys” or at least a group not completely trusted. They often do not get the benefit of the doubt. As an example, our political system, including our desire for political parties, reflects our individual tribal tendencies. If our brains were not wired to organize in tribes, then we likely would not desire to be affiliated with political parties. If our brains did not encourage tribal affiliation, then company culture would not be important to a CEO’s organizational formation focus. Understanding our nature and how we are exposed to influence is the basis for tribal affiliation understanding. Understanding is the first step to transforming our tribal relationships.

The author’s admission and motivation:

Upon looking back at my youth, I realized I did not emotionally understand tribalism. When cliques formed in my high school, I did not understand the appeal. I would socialize with different groups. I was generally liked, but people knew me as a free agent – someone that easily moved between friend groups. Earlier in my career and in companies where I became employed, I intellectually understood the importance of building culture and mission. I just did not intuitively feel it. Unlike many of my coworkers, tribal-based culture seemed more distracting than helpful. When I grew into leadership roles, I was fortunate to surround myself with people that naturally felt culture and could help lead our culture-based efforts. I appreciated how my coworkers would “watch my cultural back.” Even today, while I enjoy hanging out with friends, I do not have a need to be affiliated with larger friend groups. I like “good” people, but do not care so much about larger group affiliations. I'm not a "country club" kind of person.

My personal theory is that I probably have less of something others have more of. A little later, we will discuss the neurotransmitter oxytocin as critical to tribal formation. My best guess is that my brain does not apply oxytocin the same way as other brains. All brains produce oxytocin. My brain likely produces as much oxytocin as others. I suspect my lower tribal predisposition occurs because I may have fewer oxytocin receptors. Fewer oxytocin receptors mean my brain is less sensitive to the tribal-forming effects of oxytocin than others with more oxytocin receptors.

This article and the associated research help to identify one aspect of our incredible neurodiversity. My research suggests we are all neurodiverse on many dimensions. It is not a matter of if we are neurodiverse but a matter of degree. Beyond our tribal-based tendencies, other potential dimensions include personality typing like that from Meyers-Briggs and Carl Jung [i]. On average, each person has about 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion synapses. Given the astounding volume of cognitive raw material, how could we possibly not be incredibly neurodiverse? What is your neurodiversity story? How is your personality or "way of being" different than others? How have you had to adapt to your work or social groups in order to achieve success?

My belief is, via understanding and adaptation, we may all learn to leverage our neurodiverse capabilities.

2. Neurotransmitter background

Individually, we are very much impacted by our neurotransmitters. Think of neurotransmitters as an emotional information tag that gets placed on sensory information as it enters your brain via your five senses. As an example, say you see a lion running toward you. The neurotransmitter tag, consisting of a mix of protein-based chemicals, will attach fear to the lion's visual sensory signal. If the attached tag is strong enough, it will induce a subconscious reaction. In the case of the lion, the fear tag will cause you to run from the lion, likely running the fastest you have ever run in your life. Later, after finding safety, you will not even recall a decision to run and escape the just happened.


Digging Deeper:

Please see our Brain Model for more context. Per the brain model, the lion narrative is an example of ”The high emotion tag & low language” case. That is, a sensory situation that:

  1. Activates our limbic system based on the high-intensity sensory input emotion tag,

  2. Followed by interaction with our right hemisphere, which mostly

  3. Bypasses our left hemisphere and executive control functions, and

  4. Drives a nervous system output. (Run!)

Some organizations, such as political parties, seek to bypass the left hemisphere and executive control to enable tribal formation. Harvard neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor [ii] said:

"We are feeling creatures that think.”

She means, that our neuroanatomy enables feeling as the initial cognition filter. Thus, all sensory inputs are initially feeling tagged. This occurs prior to accessing the brain‘s left hemisphere which is associated with analytical thinking. Sometimes, like in the lion case, our brain’s left hemisphere gets bypassed altogether.


Tribalism is caused by a mix of neurotransmitters. Before we get into how it works, let's first discuss why it occurs.

The "why" relates to our evolution. A hundred thousand years ago, being part of a tribe was the difference between life and death. Our genes, via natural selection, resolved that people in a tribe were more likely to live, and people on their own were more likely to die. So, our genetic coding evolved to produce people that were more tribal. The most important takeaway about evolution -- it is very slow. Tribal-related changes to our genome happened over a hundred thousand years, whereas our need for physical tribal protection has significantly decreased just over the last couple of centuries. [iii] It is this lag from our slow genome change to our relatively fast-moving cultural change that creates conflict and exploitation opportunities.

Author Robert Wright, in his book The Moral Animal, said:

“ - genes that build the brain and govern neurotransmitters and other hormones, thus defining our "mental organs"- are here for a reason. And the reason is that they goaded our ancestors into getting their genes into the next generation.”

The "how" relates to our neurotransmitters. For context, it is important to appreciate the brain is incredibly complex and dynamic, so a single component functional description (like neurotransmitters) requires a holistic understanding of the brain. As such, I will admit, this is a research-informed simple and brief explanation for something that is hardly simple or brief.

There are a small number of unique neurotransmitters. Some of the more famous ones are dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. The emotional information tagging process occurs in the synapse. This is where a cocktail of neurotransmitters is released into the synapse to create the emotion tag. You may think of the cocktail of neurotransmitters much the way you think of color hues that are mixed from primary colors. While there are only 3 primary colors and 3 secondary colors, there are practically an infinite number of color mixes (or hues) that may be produced from the primary and secondary colors. So, think of our individually nuanced emotions as created from a unique mix of neurotransmitters. [iv]

Metaphorically, tribalism is a result of one of those hues. (Or, more specifically, a collection of related hues) Like the hue “crimson” is anchored by the primary color “red,” the neurotransmitter anchoring tribalism is oxytocin. Oxytocin is also a powerful "dual threat." That is, not only does it get produced as a neurotransmitter in the brain, but it also gets produced as a hormone in the body. Because of this “dual-threat” status, oxytocin is known as both a neurotransmitter and a neurohormone. This means, that not only do you sense an emotion coming from your brain, but you will also tangibly feel a related change in your body. As an example, oxytocin’s tribalism power is also super important at birth:

  • The mother senses the bonding love for her newborn child -> Oxytocin presents as a neurotransmitter; and,

  • The mother feels her body preparing to nurse her newborn child -> Oxytocin presents as a hormone.

By the way, you may have heard of the drug “Pitocin.” It is sometimes administered to expecting moms to induce labor. Pitocin is a derivation of our naturally occurring oxytocin neurohormone.

3. Neurodiversity and out-grouping

So tribalism is naturally and powerfully occurring in the brain and body, it is the result of many millennia of evolution, it is very slow to change, and, it will express itself differently across individuals. This is because my color mixing ability is a little different than yours and yours is a little different than others when it comes to making hues. As such, some people have a higher propensity for tribalism simply because their neurotransmitters are mixed in a way that creates a higher intensity of tribal-related emotion. As suggested in the introduction, I suspect my propensity for tribalism is lower than most, simply because of how my brain mixes neurotransmitters.

Neurodiversity is the expression of our unique neurotransmitter mixing ability.

Here, I am using the word “neurodiversity” broadly, to represent all people. My belief is we all think differently. How we think is a matter of degree, specification, and is impacted by our unique neurotransmitter sensory input coding. Unfortunately, some people narrow the neurodiversity definition to differentiate between “neurotypical” and a smaller group of neurodivergent people with clinically diagnosed exceptionalities, like dyslexia or autism. To me, that would be like calling white people “race typical” and people of color “race divergent.” Since we do not describe people with different skin colors as divergent, why would we describe people with different brain operations as divergent? I suspect part of the answer is that society's acceptance of neurodiversity is culturally lagging behind society's acceptance of other differences. To dig deeper, please see our notes for an example of neurodiversity as applied to our workplace. [v]

Tribalism may be helpful when it comes to group dynamics. (Like building company culture or organizing to create a COVID-19 vaccine.) [vi] Tribalism is certainly at play when building our families. The dark side of tribalism is out-grouping. As a rule of thumb, think of most words with a negative connotation and ending in the suffix "-ism" and you are probably thinking of words describing tribalism's dark side. (That is, words like Racism, Misogynism, Ageism, etc., etc.). Think of tribalism's dark side as evolution's holdovers. Many millennia ago, someone or something looking different from us could kill us, such as a rival cave tribe member or a wild animal. Today, that legacy genetic coding is still building humans with very old and sometimes counterproductive neurotransmitter emotion tagging processes. It will eventually change, but no time soon.

In 1964, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. [vii] This law made out-grouping-based “-isms” unlawful. Several downstream rules and laws created the legal framework defining protected classes covered by the Civil Rights Act and related laws. Protected classes include race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and others. I cite this to demonstrate the pervasiveness and long-term stickiness of our oxytocin-based tribalistic behavior. While discrimination is illegal, racism and other “-isms” are alive and well in the United States. Racist hate groups are still active. There are still many examples of race-motivated violence. Recent race-related violence includes the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Symbols matter too. In Richmond, Virginia, Route 1 is a major north-south thoroughfare, running parallel to Interstate 95. Route 1 was formally known as Jefferson Davis Highway. Jefferson Davis was the former President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis led the political organization with goals that included enslaving black people. [viii] Via a prominent road name, the City of Richmond officially memorialized a pro-slavery leader until 2020, 155 years AFTER the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S Constitution.

I am an optimist. I do believe discrimination is improving in the United States. While it is disappointing it took Richmond 155 years to recognize the impact of a pro-slavery symbol, the good news is the city changed the symbol.

I am also a realist. I appreciate the need for rules that help guide our biological-based tribal tendencies. The point is that the evolution and neuroanatomy-based human condition driving tribalistic tendencies will be with us for a very, very long time.

4. An example - Political parties

Political parties are an expression of tribalism. Political parties recruit and aggregate individuals based on several factors, including political philosophy, specific (special) interests, socioeconomic conditions, and the like. These factors are informed by our emotions, such as fear and greed. Political parties have the incentive to recruit and maintain membership by appealing to tribal-based emotions. Appealing to these emotion-informed factors engages the neurotransmitters or "hues" associated with electorate tribalism.

In the typical U.S. presidential general election, political party marketing evokes emotion to provide political party support. While issues may be noted, they are generally cited to engender an emotional response. This is part of tribal affiliation. This is part of the party playbook to distance the electorate from the more complex evaluation of specific issues. America’s founding generation understood the danger of political parties. For example, John Adams said:

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."

- John Adams, letter to Jonathan Jackson, Oct. 2, 1789, emphasis added

James Madison had a more pragmatic “necessary evil”-based belief about political parties. (aka: “factions”) Madison points out how voting is the supreme control for political party actions.

“The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

- James Madison, The Federalist Papers #10

To help add more context to electorate tribalism, Germany's former Nazi party is presented as an example in our notes. This example shows how emotions and situations are utilized to form and reinforce political parties. [ix] Naturally, political parties are aware of tribalism’s impact. Party communication, recruitment, and engagement are crafted to leverage our neurobiology. Social media has become a very powerful tool. It has been added to the political party’s electorate engagement toolbox. [x]

5. Conclusion

Tribalism is a double-edged sword. Via our neurobiology, tribalism is a natural part of all of us and can be used for good or bad outcomes. Being aware of how our brains produce neurotransmitters and hormones is helpful to identify and appropriately prevent being unknowingly influenced by tribalism. In many ways, social media has created a more efficient means to form narrowly focused tribes. This may happen via manipulation, such as the use of “likes” and narrow-targeted, uncurated content to help form social tribes. [xi] Because of our legal frameworks and changing culture, the negative side of tribalism is slowly being reduced. Be that as it may, the neuroanatomy-based human condition driving tribalistic tendencies will be with us for a very, very long time.

6. Notes

[i] Editors, CG Jung’s Theory, The Meyers-Briggs Foundation, undated webpage

Jung, Psychological Types, 1976 (original published 1921)

[ii] Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, 2006

[iii] As an indicator of our reduced need for physical tribal protection, in the last 200 years, the world's life expectancy has more than doubled.

[v] Hulett, Sustainable Diversity in the post-pandemic world, The Curiosity Vine, 2021

[vi] Most companies have mission statements. Think of company mission statements as belief sinks or belief aggregations. As discussed in the following article, our alignment with a company's mission is incredibly important. Company missions tend to be fixed. They do not generally change much over time unless the company changes ownership. People, on the other hand, are incredibly adaptable. We can not help but adapt to a company's mission.

"We are so adaptable, that we cannot help but become similar to the company we choose to keep. So choose your future self wisely by focusing on the mission."

[vii] Editors, Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The United States Department Of Labor

[viii] In case there is any doubt as to the goals of the Confederate States of America ("CSA"), the following is an excerpt of the "Cornerstone Speech," delivered by CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens on March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia.

"... (the CSA's) foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

[ix] The Nazi Party in post-World War I Germany used electorate tribalism to manipulate the German public in 2 primary ways. a) They used fear to help elect the party. That is, the fear of continued economic devastation as exacerbated by the Treaty of Versailles, the fear associated with the 1933 Reichstag Fire and the related Enabling Act, and other post-World War I economic challenges. The Enabling Act effectively allowed Hitler to bypass parliament. b) Once in power, they used fear to enforce party compliance to maintain party control. That is, party control was maintained via the persecution of Jewish affiliated people and the prosecution of World War II. The Nazis used a powerful mix of propaganda and shows of force to reinforce party control via electorate tribalism means. The Nazi propaganda machinery was led by Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels and implemented by Leni Riefenstahl and others. For an excellent historical account of Nazi Germany, see William Shirer's book, The Rise And Fall of the Third Reich.

[x] The following article explores and provides solutions to protect free speech and reduce the effects of misinformation.


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