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Tribal Behaviors Could Destroy Us As A Nation Or They Can Give Us A Path To Peace

We face a serious risk of having tribal behaviors destroy us as a nation. Very few of our instinctive behaviors have more ability to influence our thinking, emotions, and behaviors than the instincts to tribalize and then divide the world into Us and Them based on our tribal alignment.

Our instincts to divide the world into Us and Them have the power to do serious damage to us all — because we think and act very differently about people when those instincts are in gear in our minds and our groups.

When someone is an Us, we are protective, supportive, nurturing, forgiving, and we want whoever is Us to succeed, prosper, survive and thrive.

When someone is a Them, we are distrustful, suspicious, antagonistic, and we are likely to act in negative ways toward them at multiple levels. We want Them to fail — and we are often willing to act in very damaging ways to cause their defeat. We tend to lie to them with no sense of guilt, and we tend to do damaging things to them with no ethical sense that doing damage to them is wrong in any way.

In worst-case settings, we firebomb them, enslave them, ethnically cleanse them, and feel no guilt for any destructive, negative or damaging behavior we do to Them.

We tend to be ethical in our treatment of anyone we define to be Us — but we too often suspend ethics at a very basic level in dealing with Them.

In times of war, we define the enemy to be Them, and anything we do to an enemy Them is felt to be the right thing to do. In World War II we Americans firebombed the city of Dresden — killing large numbers of unarmed women and children — and we justified that horrible series of attacks by those massively damaging bombs as being done to Them, and necessary and right to win that war.

Everyone in our military would refuse a command to drop fire-bombs on a German town today because the Germans are now included in our definition of Us, and we do not do those kinds of horrible things to an Us.

Those instincts, thought processes and values might make sense in actual times of war, but the problem we face today is that we are applying those Us/Them sets of values, beliefs, and behaviors toward other people in times of Peace — and we are suspending conscience in those same ways for Peacetime differences between groups in our country.

That set of instinct activation relative to Us and Them is exacerbated by our traitor instinct package. Some of our strongest instincts are to hate traitors and to never want to be a traitor, ourselves. Traitors in times of war tend to be summarily executed by their own side, and people celebrate the executions.

Unfortunately, we are now applying some of those same traitor emotions and values to other groups in our country in times of Peace — that often makes it extremely difficult today to reach out to other people from other groups to create local Peace in a growing number of American settings.

Those instincts have an amazing power to shape our emotions and thought processes — and we generally do not know that we are being influenced by them while that influence is happening.

We don’t know our emotions are being so heavily influenced and controlled by those instinctive thought processes, so it feels entirely right to us to do very negative things to people under their influence.

We all need to understand the influence our instincts have on our thoughts, goals, behaviors, emotions, and both personal and collective values.

The patterns are clear once we learn to see them. Instincts affect us every day in just about every area of our lives. Our normal model for running our lives has our instincts creating foundational guidance and basic goals for what we do, and then we use both our intellect and our cultures to help us achieve those goals.

We have maternal instincts, territorial instincts, acquisitional instincts, and hierarchical instincts — and our standard approach is to build cultures in each setting that give us the tools to achieve our instincts in each setting.

We have territorial instincts, so every culture has rules for property, ownership and for possession of land, turf, and the places where we live.

We have hierarchical instincts, so every setting invents a hierarchy — with different names and titles for the top people, but similar patterns and roles for the people in each chain of command and level of status in that setting. We have chiefs, captains, presidents, and popes, and we tend to accept the role and authority level of whomever fills the relevant positions in the hierarchies for our settings and groups. We have very strong instincts that tie us to our relative status in each setting — and we have Alpha, Beta, and Theta instincts that affect how we think and how we feel about ourselves in various aspects of our lives.

Each of those sets of instincts points in very similar directions when they are activated. Those instincts create some of our more troubling and damaging behaviors.

People with Alpha instincts activated in any setting, for example, tend to act in very predictable Alpha ways relative to power and protection of their relevant turf — and those instincts often interact with other turf related instincts to create intergroup tension and conflict.

Power can be addictive — and people will sometimes do divisive and anger provoking things to both achieve and retain power that can far too easily involve having their group in a state of conflict with other groups.

Alpha instincts can be dangerous for both the creation and maintenance of Peace.

Tribal instincts have considerable power to interact with our turf instincts and our hierarchical instincts to influence both emotions and behaviors.

Our Us/Them instincts sit at the core of our most useful and our most problematic behaviors. We all strongly want to be included in an Us of some kind. We feel safer, more secure, and less threatened when we are part of an Us that helps us define us to ourselves, and that gives us other people to share our identity and interactions.

Tribes can be a very effective tool for triggering a sense of Us for people. We tend to feel loyalty, alliance, and connection to the other people who activate our tribal instincts.

Those instincts to feel like we belong to an Us can be activated by a wide variety of groups that include family, clan, actual tribes, and various people who define their tribe as being the followers of a common leader.

Political parties that have strong sense of internal identity can trigger those tribal instincts. Labor unions can activate tribal instincts and often do exactly that as part of their organizational strategies. Religious groups can define the equivalent of shared believer tribal groups, and can give people a sense of group identity, group loyalty, and group purpose that is based on a shared belief.

Both religion and shared ideology can cause people who share their belief to have a sense of Us with those people who clearly and explicitly share their belief.

Having the ability to define ourselves in a tribal setting of one kind or another can be good for our peace of mind and for our sense of personal security.

It is a good thing when people are part of a group that triggers the basic sense of Us that triggers trust, and a sense of personal safety and security. Tribes can be great tools for creating various levels of Peace. Unfortunately, tribes can also be vehicles that channel people to War.

Major problems can happen when people align as tribes and then choose to do battle as tribes.

That can happen as religious groups, political groups, or even as followers of a leader who creates a clear sense of identity and shared loyalty for the people in his or her group who choose to follow that person at instinct triggering levels.

When we do intergroup battle and activate Us/Them instinctive emotions and thought processes, we can sink to very dangerous behaviors, and those behaviors can feel very right to us at very seductive levels.

So we need to very intentionally and knowingly avoid having a sense that other people in our communities are a Them — and we need to very intentionally do basic things to create a sense of Us in each of our relevant areas.

That is both possible and relatively easy to do when we understand the factors that can be used to bring people together in any setting.

There are six primary triggers with strong links to instinctive behaviors that can be used to bring people together in any setting to form a group and to function as a group.

alignment pyramid graphic

The most basic trigger that can bring people together to function as a group is a sense of danger. People will come together and do things as a group when danger presents itself, and when people perceive the danger can be mitigated by having them function as a group.

The second basic trigger is to have a common enemy. People will come together relatively easily in many settings when the people perceive a common enemy and believe the enemy to be both real and relevant.

The third basic trigger that brings people together relatively easily is to do things as teams. We have strong instincts to favor, feel good about, and make commitments to team behaviors. People functioning on teams can often overlook other differences that exist outside of the team function and settings.

The fourth basic trigger that brings people together is a sense of shared identity that is sufficient to be perceived and identified as a shared identity and group. Families trigger that instinct very easily. Clans, tribes, ethnic groups, and racial groups also can activate that sense of shared identity.

There are core identities for each of us, and there is also an extremely flexible range of other shared identities that can trigger those instincts. Union membership or membership in an alumni club can both activate those instincts. Being New Yorkers can have the impact of activating that sense of being a group under certain circumstances and for various purposes.

We can be very creative in inventing those categories of us, and they can fill their function if they invention makes situational sense and seems to be legitimate for the purpose and group that they define.

The fifth alignment tool that can get people to work together as a group and can cause people to overlook other differences at the group level is collective gain of some kind. Group material aspirations and even group greed can cause people to work as groups. When we believe we will be wealthy or financially well off by working together in group ways, that set of motivations can attract, incentivize, and structure targeted group alignment.

The final motivation tool for bringing people together is a shared belief in a higher calling or a group leader. People can become aligned based on shared belief in an ideology or religion or mission — and can also become aligned based on a shared allegiance to a leader. We can often feel very right at an instinctive level jointly supporting our religion or our leader.

In each of those alignments and loyalties, there is a strong risk that the people with a shared belief will go to the dark side of that instinct, and will feel that people with different beliefs or personal loyalty to a different leader are an evil Them and need to be defeated, deterred, or even damaged in some way.

Both leader loyalty and loyalty to a belief system have the power to get people to do things that they would not do without that influence. Loyalty to a legitimate leader is felt to be a very high calling in most settings, and people who would never damage anyone or who would not tell a falsehood to another person in their normal life will sometimes tell lies and hurt people when their leader calls for and expects that behavior.

We need to make some decisions as a country about what set of values and behaviors we will exhibit together and as individuals, and we need to be very explicit about our sense of right and wrong relative to a wide range of intergroup behaviors. We need to understand the potential power of those instincts to damage our lives, and we need to take very direct steps to expand our sense of Us to more inclusive levels in each setting based on beliefs and values that we share.

We have had a clear set of American values that we used to guide us as a people and a country for a very long time — and we need to decide now if we want to continue to use those values and expectations and commitments to ethical behaviors as our values today.

If we do not choose to rise very intentionally and explicitly to the higher and more enlightened level of ethical interactions between groups in this country — and if we continue to tribalize and use the values and the damaging instinct-guided intergroup behaviors that tribal conflicts use to define their interactions with other groups and other sets of people, we will do huge damage and we will become a country full of groups who hate one another instead of groups who want each other to succeed and collectively achieve the American Dream.

We will be far better off as a country — and our children and grandchildren will have far better, safer, and more prosperous lives — if we achieve intergroup Peace now, and put in place processes that will cause that Peace to continue into the future. That strategy as a country would require us to rise above our current levels of divisive and conflicted tribal instinctive behaviors and to use shared values to once again become an American Us.

That is not the path we are on. We are feeling the seductive draw of our most negative intergroup instinctive reactions in too many settings and too many ways today — and people are feeling very drawn to those behaviors at a core emotional level.

The sad and unfortunate reality is that people can love being aggressively and negatively tribal — and people can find many negatively tribal behaviors emotionally reinforcing to the point of being addictive and even mob-like in their power, intensity, and values.

A major danger that we face in too many settings is that those basic negative tribal behaviors and emotions are both seductive and addictive — and we have both leaders of groups and members of groups who are fully immersed in the righteous and self fulfilling anger of those emotions and behaviors today. It is hard to restore people to calm interactions when they have been swept up in the exhilaration of intergroup anger, and when that anger is exacerbated and amplified by the shared and mutually self-reinforcing anger from members of their own group.

Mob behavior is addictive in itself. Every police department in every major city has mob control training and equipment because our mob instincts are so powerfully seductive when they are activated.

Modern technology has allowed us to transfer very primal mob behavior to the internet, and we are perfecting mob behaviors and mob alignments in our electronic settings. The sheer hatred and shared hatred that exists on many internet sites has no historic parallel because our traditional lynch mobs, ethnic cleansing mobs, and direct intergroup attacks all were situational, and they tended to be time limited by logistical realities of functional and physical mobs — and the internet mob hatred seems to be perpetually self extending, and it has the ability to continue building negative energy from its own existence over periods of time.

Those are dangerous and damaging behaviors. We need to understand them clearly — and do what we can to both avoid them ourselves and to help other people who are swept up in them regain a non-mob perspective for both thoughts and behaviors. We need to make some informed and conscious choices about all of those areas.

We need to create a dialogue and a communication process that leads to intergroup and interpersonal understanding. We need to build a critical mass of enlightened people who are aligned by our shared values and our shared core beliefs, and who want each other to do well.

We need core values that we all share.

We need good will as a core value.

We need inclusion as a core value.

We need honesty and openness as a core value and a mutual commitment.

We need a belief in democracy. We need a belief that people from every group and every gender or gender alignment are to be both included in the American Dream and protected against being damaged by other people based on race, gender, culture, ethnicity, or any other category or group definition.

We need to collectively require our leaders to tell the truth about both sides of the issues — and we need to expect that people who give their word and make commitments will honor those commitments.


We need a trutherism movement as a country and as communities that restores Truth to our behaviors as an expectation and as a commitment that we make to one another. We need a set of values, and behaviors that very explicitly has us all expecting the truth in each setting, and we need support that helps people from all groups be included in the truth telling process.

We each need to understand our Us/Them instinctive behaviors and thoughts, and we need to not demonize and dehumanize and damage people who have other political or religious or ideological beliefs or leanings.

This is all possible to do — but we will need to start now by letting up on our deepest anger for people who were a Them to us in the past. We don’t need to forgive and forget — but we do need to forgive and move on. Progress can’t happen if we are anchored in our most problematic anger and refuse move on to being who we need to be tomorrow.

We need key people who believe in this approach — and we need enlightened people to help others become enlightened.

Understanding our patterns of instinctive behavior needs to be the foundation for our new movement for Peace. Teach that paradigm to relevant people and help create settings where the cultures are anchored in the right sets of values.

We can easily change cultures when we know what cultures are and how to modify their core beliefs. We need to do that — and we need to anchor our culture change in a commitment to absolutely stop the abuse of women and girls at every cultural and functional level.

That also can be done when we understand the processes involved and know what we are doing in each setting. This is the time for us to both recognize our tribal instincts and our tribal behaviors for what they are, and make the adult and caring decision to rise above them.

Peace. In our Time.

We need to do smart, wise, caring, intentional, and even courageous things to make that happen.

That can be done — but we will actually need to do it.