How Your “Tribe” Affects Your Perception

NPR aired an interesting trio of segments this morning about inconsistency and flip-flopping. I particularly enjoyed Alix Spiegel’s report on Jamie Barden, a psychology professor at Howard University. Barden’s work considers how “tribal” affiliation affects our perceptions of inconsistent behavior by politicians. In one experiment, Barden asked students their view of a hypothetical political operative named Mike who crashed while driving drunk and then, a few weeks later, gave a speech against drunk driving:

Now obviously there are two possible interpretations of Mike’s actions. The first interpretation is that Mike is a hypocrite. Privately he’s driving into poles. Publicly he’s making proclamations. He’s a person whose public and private behavior is inconsistent.

The other interpretation is that Mike is a changed man. Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew.

So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth?

What Barden found is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened, than on tribe.

Half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students in the study as a Repubican, and half the time he was described as a Democrat.

When participants were making judgments of a Mike who was in their own party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When participants were making judgments about a Mike from the opposing party, 40 percent found him to be a hypocrite.

I suspect this is the same phenomenon that leads sports fans to systemtically disagree with referee decisions against their favorite team.

5 thoughts on “How Your “Tribe” Affects Your Perception”

  1. This is profoundly consequential. And rational.

    I am no biologist, but I strongly suspect humans evolved to cherish group belonging above all else. Survival mechanism. Being alone is the surest path to an untimely end in nature.

    So our psychology is deeply commited to the Group. For the sake of belonging, we will say and do whatever the group wants us to.

    Of course, the catch is that we don’t see this is a problem at all. Within the group it all feels natural. The skewed interpretation of events does not appear in any way abnormal or skewed. Only from the perspective of another group does it seem weird.

    Groupthink/herding cannot be defeated. Who can fight millions of years of evolution?

    Which is why I always say:

    Life is all about picking your fight and fighting it till the end. There is nothing more to it.

  2. Ingroup bias, outgroup homogeneity bias. We’re awesome! They’re all alike. If you haven’t read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, you should add it to your list. You’ll see that this sort of response is generally from our “System 1” brain, the automatic association part of our thinking process that houses biases to make fast decisions and judgments. Our lazy brains want to take the fastest and easiest route, so we have to train ourselves to use the “System 2” brain, the one that grudgingly takes in facts and weighs alternatives. System 2 is the part of our thinking process that was a luxury for the cave dwellers.

  3. Thinking better of/protecting one’s own group and stereotyping of other groups are both plausible mechanisms here as noted above. A differentiating feature might be the type of hypocrisy ascribed to the opponent: If the cause is primarily protection of “own tribe”, one would expect similar patterns. If the cause is stereotyping, one might expect different patterns, where the Republican drinkers are believed to be hypocrites at the time of the accident (“Claimed high morality, drinking in secret”), while the Democratic drinkers are believed to be hypocrites at the time of the speech (“Claim now clean, but no doubt still living a dissolute life”).

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