The Tribal (Pack) Instinct

The ability to unify or divide a people is the true root of power. Under the spell of a charismatic leader a crowd can become an army. Likewise, a skillful provocateur can turn a previously unified nation against itself. The means to attain and wield this power have been studied and refined over the millennia.

In the early 1970s social psychologist Henri Tajfel set out to study the minimal conditions required for discrimination to occur between groups of humans. In his tests he discovered that rivalries could be created in a very short time by sorting individuals by trivial criteria (such as one’s musical preferences or hair color). Groups formed by such trivia would almost immediately begin to display prejudice against those on the other side (out-group), and treat those in the same category (in-group) more favorably. The phenomenon activated even when the divisions were totally arbitrary. Divide a group by coin toss and tribal dynamics manifest. Tajfel referred to this principle as the “minimal group paradigm”.

This phenomenon takes countless forms: political partisanship, gangs, nationalism, cults, religions, even team sports… all are expressions of the same psychology — the pack (or tribal) instinct. The sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. When that need is not met, replacements always emerge.

Homo sapiens sapiens is a social animal. Tribe: the human analogue of a pack. National identity: a proxy for tribe. This instinct predates humanity and will persist. Failure to account for it invites tragedy.

A nation can be unified by drawing attention to an external threat (in-group is always strengthened by a hostile out-group). If a proper enemy doesn’t exist, one can be created. The same population can be fractured by pitting internal factions against each other (divide and conquer). Opposition is meaningless if it cannot coordinate or organize.

To deeply alter human behavior an idea must embed itself as a cultural norm. This process can be engaged proactively.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, psychologically unified groups always develop a cultural code which defines what it means to be “one of us”. This code may include ideological tenets, duties, forbidden practices etc… Conformity to cultural norms is rewarded with social validation. Nonconformity is punished along a spectrum ranging from verbal condemnation to expulsion. This mechanism operates directly on the dopamine channel, and plays a preponderate role in human behavior.

In its most potent form, cultural code has the force of morality, and is utterly intolerant of dissent. Criticizing or questioning its tenets is interpreted as an attack on the group, and by extension the self. The defensive (or aggressive) reactions that typically follow are the ideological equivalent of an immune response.

Social Validation

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that operates on the reward, pleasure and motivation mechanisms of the brain.

Social validation causes dopamine levels in the brain to increase, creating a sense of happiness and well being. Social condemnation has the opposite effect, and can be emotionally devastating. Very few humans are strong enough to resist this pressure. As such, most integrate the cultural code of their group as a package, and conform to expectations. Among these expectations (whether explicit or implied) is the duty to defend the group against perceived enemies.


The left / right paradigm provides a prime example of this phenomenon. Observing the way “liberals” and “conservatives” treat each other, one could easily get the impression that these were foreign nations at war. What began with differences of opinion, evolved over the years into open contempt, hatred, and violence. The same dynamic can be observed in sectarian conflicts around the world.

The political class uses these divisions strategically. The target demographic is studied extensively using polls and focus groups. Platforms are crafted based on how a specific contingent reacts rather than the candidate’s actual views. The audience can then be fed exactly what they want to hear.

Once in power the rules change. Campaign promises can be left by the wayside or totally reversed. Rather than respond to these reversals as betrayals, followers will typically take the new position and defend it. To do otherwise would jeopardize the leader, and would play into the hands of the enemy (out-group).

This site (and the associated content) is maintained by a very small team (with very limited resources). If you see something that you feel that you could improve, contact us through our volunteer page.