Tribal Behavior
The Independent Thinker--Critical Thinking, Activism, Dissent, Metanoia

The following is an extract from pages 68-76 of IRRATIONALITY: Why We Don't Think Straight!, by Stuart Sutherland. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

"...pernicious ways of achieving group cohesion... Group members may come to despise, dislike, or even hate other groups. The classic research on this topic was undertaken by Muzifer Sherif in the 'forties and 'fifties and had sensational results. Since he conducted experiments each year for several years, always with the same outcome, I have for convenience run together material from more than one study. The subjects were white middle-class Protestant American boys about twelve years old; they had no idea they were being studied, since they were invited to attend a summer camp and the experimenters passed themselves off as the camp director, counsellors, and even an odd-job man: social psychologists are nothing if not versatile. The boys were chosen from different schools and neighborhoods so that none of them already knew one another. Initially they all lived in a single large bunkhouse.

"After three days they had begun to form friendships, and each was asked who were his special friends. They were then divided into two separate camps with friends allocated as far as possible to different camps. Although they still all ate together, each of the groups began to develop its own conventions. One called itself the 'Eagles', the other the 'Rattlers'. They stamped these names on their T-shirts, for even in those days other people's clothes were widely read. They began going to separate places to swim and each group developed its own slang. After a further four days, the boys were again informally asked who were their special friends. Their former friends had been abandoned, for now nine out of ten of the boys named as friends were within their own group.

"In the next stage, the experimenter introduced competitive games between the groups, such as softball or soccer. The members of the team that won the series of games were each to be given a prize of a camping knife. At first the games were played in a reasonably good-natured way, but soon both teams became distinctly acrimonious. Accusations of being dirty players or cheats began to fly around, and the members of each group bumped, pushed, and shoved those of the other as they queued for their food. Asked to rate the performance of individuals at the games, both groups rated their own members much higher than those of the other. One group attacked the other's camp at night, overturning beds and strewing their belongings around. They ended up by refusing to share the common dining-room. These experiments have been repeated many times both by Sherif and by others, always with the same result: indeed, it is said that one such experiment had to be stopped for fear of mayhem.

"Parenthetically, it should be observed that these findings suggest that games played between different countries (or even between different towns in the same country), far from promoting amity between them, will only foster animosity... The violence and hatred between the followers of different countries' teams in the World Cup is notorious.

"In view of all the evidence, which ranges from foul play and foul tempers at public school Rugby matches to dirty work across the chess board, it is extraordinary that many people still believe that competitive sport improves relations between the nationalities or groups to which the opposing teams belong... As George Orwell remarked, 'Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealously, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.'

"It is likely that it is difficult to take pride in one's own group without regarding other groups as inferior...

".. prejudice against out-groups is usually accompanied by the formation of stereotypes: Jews are seen as avaricious, blacks as lazy and so on... One reason for holding stereotypes is that they are convenient: we do not have to assess the individual case, we merely assume he or she conforms to the stereotype.

"A second reason is that we tend to notice anything that supports our own opinions. We notice the Scotsman who is canny about money, but don't pay much attention to one that is generous.

"Third, we notice the actions of members of a minority group much more readily than those of a larger group. They are conspicuous because they are rare. In the same way, bad behaviour is more noticeable than normal behaviour...

"... prejudice towards out-groups.. has probably caused more misery throughout human history than any other factor... It is possible that the dislike of out-groups is to some extent inborn and reaches back to our tribal history. That does not justify it nor does it necessarily mean that it is impossible to control."


Works Cited

Brown, R.J. "Divided We Fall: An Analysis of Relations Between Sections of a Factory Work-force." In H. Tajfel (ed.). Differentiation Between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. London: Academic Press, 1978.

Nisbett, R., and L. Ross. Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. (See pp. 237-242 for a discussion of stereotyping).

Sherif, M. Group Conflict and Co-operation: Their social Pscyhology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Tajfel, H., C. Flament, M.G. Billig, and R.P. Bundy. "Social Categorization and Intergroup Behavious." European Journal of Social Psychology, I (1971): 149-178.

Tajfel, H., and A.L. Wilkes. "Classification and Quantitative Judgement." British Journal of Psychology, 54 (1963): 101-114.


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