Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

by David Berreby

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This groundbreaking and eloquently written book explains how and why people are wedded to the notion that they belong to differing human kindstribe-type categories like races, ethnic groups, nations, religions, castes, street gangs, sports fandom, and high school cliques. Why do we see these divisions? Why do we care about them so much? Why do we kill and die for


This groundbreaking and eloquently written book explains how and why people are wedded to the notion that they belong to differing human kindstribe-type categories like races, ethnic groups, nations, religions, castes, street gangs, sports fandom, and high school cliques. Why do we see these divisions? Why do we care about them so much? Why do we kill and die for them? This is the stuff of news headlines. How has a nation gone from peaceful coexistence to genocide? How does social status affect your health? Why are teenagers willing to kill themselves in hazing rituals in order to belong to a fraternity or social group? How do terrorists learn not to care about the lives of those they attack? US AND THEM gets at the heart of these profound questions by looking at their common root in human nature. Politics, culture, and economics play their parts, but its the human mind that makes them possible, and thats the focus of US AND THEM. Were not born with a map of human kinds; each person makes his own and learns to fight for it. This is a crucial subject that touches all of our lives in ways both large and small, obvious and subtle. Human-kind thinkingwhether beneficial or destructiveis part of human nature, as David Berrebys brilliant book reveals.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Berreby’s aim is to demonstrate how greatly what he calls our “tribal” nature—the tendency to judge others according to categories, such as Muslims, lawyers, whites—governs our lives. Drawing on such diverse disciplines as psychology, genetics, and social neuroscience, he demonstrates both the frequent instability of such categories—for instance, the idea of Type A and Type B personalities, once influential in psychology, has been discredited—and their power. Berreby’s thesis is often clouded by a superabundance of examples, but it is nonetheless a stimulating tour of a fascinating topic. He is particularly trenchant on the subject of race, a category more or less abandoned by geneticists but inexorable at a social level. He notes, “Racial and ethnic groups are real the way money is real—because people believe they are and act on their beliefs.”
Publishers Weekly
With this impressively well-researched work, Berreby attempts to apply the tools of science to an impossibly large question: what is it about the human mind that makes us believe in categories like race, gender and ethnicity? Spanning countless disciplines, Berreby draws on a staggering variety of sources, from St. Paul's epistles and the philosophical essays of David Hume to the evolutionary theory of Stephen Jay Gould and the evolutionary psychology of Cosmides and Tooby. Yet, structurally, the text feels rather scattered. It moves breathlessly from one citation or example to another without any clear indication of where it's headed or what the overall point is; often, it reads less like a deliberately argued work than a collection of anecdotes, musings and insights. Fortunately, Berreby, who has written for various publications including the New York Times and the New Republic, has a casual and conversational style that makes even his most complicated points straightforward and commonsensical: at the most scientific moments, such as his thoughtful explanation of the physical effects of stress and stigma on the brain, Berreby still requires no specialized knowledge from the reader. And he illustrates other points, like the role food plays in the perception of difference, with revealing and amusing examples. The book may not break any new intellectual ground, but it does offer an entertaining survey of a vast, and vastly important, topic of study. (Oct. 24) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Scientific and cultural affairs writer Berreby here amasses an astonishing quantity of research on stereotyping and the human need to categorize, which results in an us vs. them mentality; as humans, our identity is forged by our belonging to the security-induced circle of us. Drawing on his own findings as well as disparate disciplines ranging from psychology to genetics, he devises a comprehensive and holistic approach to understanding our perplexing propensity for dividing people into differing human kinds based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religon, caste, and so on. Not surprisingly, he points to physiological, neuropsychological, and sociocultural reasons for our behavior. Berreby also recounts several fascinating psychology experiments relevant to his subject, including one involving young male campers who manifest us vs. them behavior but, with a bit of social control, realign their loyalties when necessary. Not since Gordon Allport's landmark treatise The Nature of Prejudice has the idea of belonging and not belonging received such serious treatment. This intriguing but demanding book is highly recommended for all university libraries and for large public libraries.-Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The absorbing question of why and how human beings divide people into groups-"us" and "them"-takes the author on a sometimes meandering journey into anthropology, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Early in the history of every society, journalist Berreby says, people discover a hidden language of "us" and "them," a human-kind code as it were, that speaks directly to the unconscious mind. Using this code, leaders can shape people's emotions and thus their actions. Belief in the existence of a particular human-kind can have real consequences for the people placed in that category. When people see other people not as human beings but as tokens of a category, it becomes easier to treat them as nonhumans, to demonize them, even kill them. Berreby looks at other ways in which human-kind beliefs affect people's lives-in medicine, when assumptions are made about disease on the basis of the race of patients, or in the legal system, when ethnic profiling is used to screen for potential law-breakers. While science can group people using various genetic markers, the groupings that result do not match the categories created by history and culture, such as races, nations and ethnic groups. Each of us, the author points out, is simultaneously a member of many different, overlapping and changing human kinds, and the group that we identify with at any given moment depends on the situation. Similarly, the categories we slot others into are constructs arising from psychological and cultural beliefs and experiences, not scientific facts. Berreby reminds us that the human-kind code lies in the mind, shaped by human nature, but just how it is used, for good or for evil, is up to the individual who ownsit. A provocative investigation of the tribal mindset that has reverence for our time.

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
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Read an Excerpt

Us and Them

By David Berreby

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2005 David Berreby
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-09030-1

Chapter One


All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We And every one else is They. -Rudyard Kipling, "A Friend of the Family"

Scientists, when they turn their attention to people, usually talk about the entire human race or about the individual human being. Those are two faces of the same idea. Truth about all is truth about each; a theory about the mind or morality applies to everyone who ever lived, as well as to you in particular. Either perspective yields big explanations, which make many predictions to test and suggest many experiments. It's where researchers like to be - working on "the" genome, or "the" brain, or "the" self.

They aren't nearly as comfortable with the categories in between one person and all people - the ones that researchers, like everyone else, use when they're off duty, away from their work. Categories like Americans and Iranians, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, men and women, southerners and northerners, doctors and lawyers, gays and straights, soccer moms and NASCAR dads, outgoing people and shy types, smart ones and lucky ones. Those - and all other labels that define more than one person but fewer than all - are what I (following the philosopher Ian Hacking and the psychological anthropologist Lawrence A. Hirschfeld) call "human kinds."

Human kinds, whose memberships fall between All and One, map a much more variegated world than that one-size-fits-all label Homo sapiens. Some human kinds are types, like cranky old men and plumbers. Others are cultures, like Basques and Thais. Some are old and populous, like the category Japanese or Jain; others are smallscale and recent, like "former graduate students of Steven Pinker."

Some human kinds even include nonhumans. Your family, for example, might include a dog or a cat for which you feel more and do more than you do for faraway people. And human kinds may also enfold nonliving things-like flags, sacred books, and graves-that are revered and protected as if they too had lives to live and lose.

Human kinds are infinitely divisible: examine one, and you find inside it subcategories and, inside those, still more. For example, military veterans are a distinct kind of person from those who did not serve; Navy vets are distinct from other services; those who served in the brown-shoe navy (its aviation-related services) are distinct from the black-shoe navy (other ships), and among the black-shoe vets submariners are their own tribe, and so on and on. Some human kinds, we are told from a very early age, we were born into-families, races, ethnic groups, religions, and nations. Other kinds are based on bodies: male and female, athletic or disabled. There are other kinds that other people put us into, like nerd or jock, Bible-thumper or Godless secular humanist. There are the kinds we join by passing special tests, like doctor or accountant. And the ones we join to make a living, like pizza guy or copyeditor. There are happenstance human kinds, like "women in the ladies' room on the 8:15 ferry." There are others we sign ourselves into by conviction, like the National Rifle Association or the Democratic Party, and some we join because we think we must to survive-like gangs, militias, and secret societies.

Some human kinds make sense only because members see and depend on each other every day, like the soldiers in a combat unit. Others consist of people who never meet, like the millions of fellow citizens those soldiers defend. In other words, human kinds serve so many different needs, there is no single recipe for making one. Parentage makes a person a Brahmin, training makes her a soldier, sending in dues makes her a member of a religious congregation. She can convert to Islam, but not to Chineseness; she can marry into Protestantism, not into liberalism.

Why is all this variety possible? That's not a question that can be answered by looking at the political, economic, or cultural aspects of human kinds, as important as those aspects are. The issue is not what human kinds are in the world, but what they are in the mind - not how we tell Tamils and Seventh-Day Adventists and fans of Manchester United from their fellow human beings, but why we want to.

After all, other creatures get along fine without dividing themselves into such tribes. With one important exception, for instance, humanity's close relative the chimpanzee goes through life quite well solving only problems about Everychimp and problems about My Friend and Cousin, the one with the long face and the limp - chimps in general and individuals. Yet a human who went through life like that would not know what "our kind" of food is, or enjoy "our kind" of music, or know what "we do" when someone dies.

Such a person, lacking any sense of family tradition, religious history, patriotism, or cultural pride, would not live a fully human life. Human-kind thinking is an absolute requirement for being human.

Which brings up the dark side: people are killed for nothing more than their membership in the "wrong" tribes. Many times in the past few years, young men who were polite and thoughtful to members of their own sort, who loved their mothers and listened to their fathers and cared for their children, set out to kill other people's mothers and fathers and children without a qualm - in New York City on September 11, 2001; in Beslan, Russia, on September 1, 2004; in Nazi-ruled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. More examples could fill every page of this book. Throughout history, killers have worked with zeal because they believed their victims were not of the same kind as the people they cared about, the people who mattered. No wonder people both cherish and fear the power of tribal thinking. No wonder they want to understand it.

Many people today find themselves struggling, again and again, with a difficult question: Who is "our side"? In the days after the September 11 attacks, the prime minister of Italy spoke of the superiority of Christian civilization and was immediately denounced by his allies; two religious leaders in the United States tried to claim that abortionists and civil libertarians did not belong in the new alliance against terror because they made God angry. The president of the United States, though he was a political ally, rebuked the clergymen. The new antiterror coalition of nations could not make war on Islam because they had millions of Muslim citizens. Was it, then, a coalition of democracies? The most important frontline ally in the ensuing war was Pakistan, a dictatorship. Obviously, sides in the current conflict were chosen; they aren't a matter of "natural" or inevitable divisions. Today it is clear as never before that human kinds - those categories we use to explain human acts on every scale, from a morning walk ("Why were those men wearing turbans?") to all of history ("Is war inevitable?") - don't depend on what people are, but on what people believe.

That's the difference between human tribes and the boundaries animals observe. Many creatures, from mice and pigeons to lions and dolphins, know a member of "our group" from a stranger. All these creatures have been well studied in the past few decades, and the pattern is clear: fights within the group are limited and tend not to get out of hand, but fights between groups end in deaths. This in-group restraint, as the psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay has said, gave rise to the widely believed myth that animals don't kill their own kind. In fact many animals - lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, hyenas - are happy to kill their own. The victim just can't be a member of their little band.

Animals, though, don't make decisions about who is "in" and who is "out." A dog guards her puppies because they are kin, and members of her human family because they are friends. But no dog quits her humans because they have converted to Catholicism or put a peace sign on the lawn.

People can and will make that sort of change, because people, unlike animals, make choices based on signs-crosses, uniforms, peace signs, oaths, and other indicators of a particular human kind. Animals have kin and animals have friends, but only human beings trust symbols to tell who is kin and who is a friend.

One August night in New York City in 1997, for example, the crucial symbol was a tiny piece of metal. A white cop beat up a black man he had arrested. Later, both men were in the bathroom of the police station, where the officer spotted a tiny crucifix that his victim wore around his neck. That was enough to make the cop put away one map of human kinds and take up another - instead of police against suspect, or white against black, he now saw two fellow Christians. The officer said he too believed in Jesus, and apologized.

In Sovu, Rwanda, on May ?, ????, the symbol was a bit of cloth. That day, Tutsi refugees sought escape from bands of Hutus in Sovu's convent. The mother superior, Sister Gertrude, called in the Hutu militia. Hundreds of the Tutsi were shot, hacked, or burned to death. But Sister Gertrude did not turn over the convent's Tutsi nuns. Their veils protected them. Seeing this, a nineteen-year-old woman named Aline, the niece of a nun, begged for a veil. Sister Gertrude refused.

Seven years later, she was convicted in Belgium of war crimes. Among the witnesses was the murdered niece's mother. "My daughter was killed because of a little piece of cloth," she said. If humans are, as the neuroscientist Terence Deacon puts it, the "symbolic species," then human kinds are among those features that reveal our uniqueness. A symbolic strip of cloth - its presence saving you from a pack of rampaging killers, its absence marking you as the kind to kill - is something only Homo sapiens creates.

But a symbol, like that nun's veil, is meaningless unless it is understood. If the murderers had thought it was just a bit of cloth, for example, they would have killed all the Tutsi who wore it. Any activity that depends on symbols can't be understood without taking into account the human minds that use those symbols. Imagine trying to get by in Kinyarwanda, the language shared by Hutu and Tutsi, by treating it only as a system of sounds - wavelengths and acoustic properties. You wouldn't get far until you accepted that these sounds meant something, and found someone to explain what those meanings were.

In the same way, human kinds can't be understood objectively, as a collection of facts about blood types, skull shapes, average ages, preferred brands, and so on. Those facts seen from the outside can never tell what the human kind means. That meaning is made inside the heads of people who believe in it.

Scientists who study a pack of macaque monkeys can predict who gets along with whom. Knowing which animals are relatives and which are allies lets an observer explain the fights and frolics very well. But "objective" knowledge of human kinds does not. Sister Gertrude was a Hutu, so you would not be surprised if she had sent all the Tutsi in the convent to death. Yet she was also a nun, so it's not a surprise that she saved fellow nuns even though they were Tutsi. She was also a Christian; it would be admirable and understandable if she had stood, on religious principles, against the killing of any human being.

The important point is that any of these alternatives is possible. Mindless facts - who is a Tutsi, who is a Hutu, who has a veil, who lacks one - cannot predict what people will do. Human beings are unusually alike, compared to most species. We're also, each of us, unique. From those two facts, it follows that measurable, objective differences will always exist between any two groupings of people, and that any two groups, no matter how different, will be the same on many other measures. It will always be possible to find differences between this race and that one, this nation and those, people with this gene versus people without it. But not one of those facts will tell why you divided people into the human kinds you chose to analyze.

People who look at the traits of the kinds themselves, then, are posing the wrong questions. Do American Jews have higher average scores on certain academic tests than other Americans? Do African American marrieds have sex more often than others? Are Hispanics more likely to attend church? Maybe so, maybe not; but people don't start with data and then divide the world into Jews, African Americans, and Hispanics. It's the other way around. First we believe in those human kinds, and then, because we believe, we gather the data. To understand this aspect of ourselves, we don't need any more facts about human kinds. We need facts about human minds.

One way to find those facts is to study human kinds as if they were rules for thinking-methods of sorting out perceptions. You see a woman caring for her child and class her as a mother; you see a white-haired, stooped man and class him as an old person. That's a psychologist's approach. On the other hand, sociologists and anthropologists have looked at human kinds as rules for behavior-methods of knowing what people are supposed to do. In the right circumstances, knowing that someone is in the navy, or a doctor, or a devout Christian, tells you what he's likely to do, and how you should act in your turn. That knowledge serves as a bulwark against the force of ever-changing circumstances. Feeling hurried or stressed makes people less likely to help another person, but a reminder of their duties as members of a human kind can make them turn back. A military uniform, a Hippocratic oath, a bracelet that asks Christians "what would Jesus do?" - such tokens of membership make our actions more consistent than they would otherwise be. They remind us to look beyond the emotions of right here, right now, and act as members should. The navy is supposed to defend the nation, doctors to heal the sick, Christians to be Christlike, no matter what.

So these human kinds offer the joy of belonging to something larger than the little self; they let us thrill to a feeling of existence across centuries and continents, of being alive so long as "we," our kind, endure. The first type of human kind is a category based on traits ("white hair equals old person," for example). The second type is based on obligations ("Soldiers must serve the nation"). An institution of this second sort, we sense, must act consistently, even if individual members fail it. That's what defines human kinds of this second type: the things people do to belong.

That consistency makes it easy to think of this sort of human kind as if it were a person itself - a being with thoughts, plans, and feelings of its own. Nations have moods, schools have spirits, and a congregation can repent. You can say the navy has decided to seek more recruits next year. It's harder to come up with a sentence about how the world's mothers have decided to act.

Nonetheless, these two viewpoints - human kinds as categories and human kinds as entities that happen to be made of people - are looking at one phenomenon. All human kinds have aspects of both, though the proportions can change over time. Half a century ago in North America, "homosexual" was mostly a category for people. Today in many Western nations, gays and lesbians are seen as an entity that wants, hopes, decides, and votes. On the other hand, the Norwegian community of New York City used to be an entity, with neighborhoods, clubs, and churches that helped organize people's lives. "Norwegians" made up a thing made of people. Today New York's Norwegians, despite annual parades, are mostly members of a category for people.


Excerpted from Us and Them by David Berreby Copyright © 2005 by David Berreby.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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