Humans are tribal animals. We trust and mimic members of our group, while we distrust and malign outsiders. That worked 200,000 years ago, but it’s a bad strategy now, and one 1950s experiment is a fantastic case in point.

In the Robber’s Cave Experiment, researchers pitted two groups of homogeneous, preteen boys against each other.

The results were riveting, yet strangely unsurprising:

The Robber’s Cave Experiment

Tribal Differentiation

The boys in the experiment were all 11 or 12 years old, white, and middle class. They were screened to make sure they were normally adjusted, and to make sure no boy knew any other boy prior to the experiment.

These boys were culturally identical.

Upon separation the groups formed identities—one became “The Rattlers”, the other “The Eagles”. The identities formed independently of one another, being separated by some distance and for several days.

The Rattlers formed an identity based on being “rough”, like a pee wee biker gang, complete with irreverence toward authority and language unbecoming of a 12 year old boy in the 1950s.

The Eagles formed roughly the opposite identity, like a boy scout troop. They fancied themselves honorable, trustworthy, and law abiding.

Throughout the experiment the boys on each side—boys who were specifically chosen to be identical—were observed to adhere to the norms of whatever group they belonged to. Rattlers cussed, Eagles were polite.

Tribal Warfare

Once the tribes had formed, the researchers pitted the groups against each other. They competed as teams in sporting events and the like.

Acrimony among rival tribe members formed almost immediately. Miniature feuds played out over this period of conflict. Camping lodges were ransacked, fist fights erupted. These hostilities actually forced this segment of the experiment to be cut short, because they escalated quickly to potentially dangerous, physical conflict.

Perfectly normal, culturally identical boys.

Tribal Reconciliation

The final phase of the experiment involved giving both groups superordinate goals, i.e. goals that both groups needed to achieve but that neither group could accomplish without the help of the other. One superordinate task was pulling a broken down truck back to camp with a large rope, which required the combined strength of both tribes.

During this phase the hostilities ceased, and gave way to comradery and intergroup friendship formation.

By working for a common good, the two groups which had so easily formed and fought, were able to unite and integrate.

Tribal Object Lesson

The Robber’s Cave Experiment is an object lesson in in-group / out-group bias. It demonstrates clearly that:

  • Our tribal affiliations are completely arbitrary.
  • The groups we affiliate with “inject” traits into us that aren’t necessarily authentic.

Arbitrary Affiliations

Just like the Rattlers and Eagles, the tribes you align with are mostly arbitrary. You were born with your ethnicity, cultural background, and socioeconomic status.

A great example of tribal affiliation in action is politics.

In America there are two basic political positions: Republican and Democrat. They actually don’t differ significantly in practice, but the idea is that Republicans are for less taxation and fewer government services, versus Democrats who are for redistribution of wealth, and protecting the disenfranchised.

Let me repeat, however: in practice, the two parties are almost identical. They have superficially different positions, just like the rattlers and the eagles, but they actually just serve as rally points for parallel tribes.

If you ask an American who is interested in the way their country is run—really interested—what political party they affiliate with, you will find almost universally that they affiliate with neither major party, or they affiliate only begrudgingly since there is no serious alternative. Anyone who strongly and unreservedly identifies with either major party is either just rattling sabers, or they are selling you something.

Arbitrary Traits

The rattlers choice of “roughness” was meaningless. The sole purpose of that outlook was to cohere the group. Each of those boys unconsciously accepted the meaningless group norm purely for the sake of acceptance in that group. You do the same thing.

Back to politics, since it’s quintessential tribalism.

  • I already mentioned that Democrats are stereotypically in favor of giving to the poor and disenfranchised. Providing support and services to people who otherwise would fall through the cracks. It may surprise you that Republicans, not Democrats, give more of their income and volunteer more of their time to charity.</p> This is because while a rallying cry of the Democrats is charity, it’s easier and provides equal tribal credibility to talk about giving, rather than actually giving which is costly and hard to advertise.</li>

    • A recurring theme in variety shows is interviewing attendees of political rallies to demonstrate how hilariously ignorant they are about that which they claim to support. Just one example is Sarah Palin supporters showing up en masse to get her autograph, while knowing nothing about her. They are asked basic questions about what they are for or against, but they can’t answer.

      This happens because the traits and beliefs of Palin and her tribe are secondary to signaling tribal affiliation.</li> </ul>

      Transcending Your Tribe

      We come once again to the slashing and burning portion of my message.

      Whether you cuss like a Rattler or obey like an Eagle, maybe you didn’t realize what a profound effect your tribe had on you. You didn’t know that your way of relating to the world has more to do with the people you spend time with than your internal values.

      Now you know.

      But what now? How do you figure out what you actually value, and what is just tribal bullshit?

      Here’s how to begin transcending your tribe:

      1. Identify the tribes to which you believe you belong. Libertarian, Vegetarian, Pastafarian, Entrepreneur, Geek, whatever.
      2. Ask one or two of your closest friends to identify the tribes to which you belong. Tribes are complicated and intertwined, it’s best to get other perspectives.
      3. Combine the lists of tribes. Add your friends’ suggestions only if you feel they are accurate. If you reject a tribe they included, that likely means you share traits and beliefs with the tribe they wrote down which is why they think you’re in it. But if you don’t self-identify with that tribe, it’s unlikely you’ve unconsciously adopted the traits from that tribe, so it’s not relevant to this exercise.
      4. For each tribe in your combined list, write down the stereotypical traits and beliefs of tribe members. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, just think of maybe three to five traits.
      5. Put a check mark next to each stereotypical trait that you share in common with your tribes.
      6. You now have a list of “suspect traits”: traits that are likely to be inauthentic. Traits you unconsciously accepted as part of your tribal membership.
      7. For each suspect trait, try to identify the core value that drives that trait. Also try to identify the actions you take that satisfy that core value. If you find that difficult or impossible, you should throw out that trait. It’s not you. You thought you believed it, but you don’t.

      Here’s a quick example, loosely based on one of my tribes:


      • Tribe: Vegetarian
      • Stereotypical Traits: Love animals, Militant, Compassionate, Wear weird clothes like burlap shoes, long haired hippy, liberal, healthy, thin.
      • Traits I share: Love animals, Healthy.
      • Suspect Traits:</p>
        • Love animals. Do I really love animals? My related core value is that I should maximize happiness for all living things (Altruistic Hedonism). Do I do that? I don’t buy any animal products. I don’t buy any products tested on animals. I volunteer for two different local animal rescue organizations. I think my values and actions are aligned, so my “suspect trait” passes as authentic.
        • Healthy. Do I really value health? I do eat really well, while many vegetarians do not. Historically I’ve been a workout fanatic, but recently I’ve been pretty sedentary. I did just rejoin Tae Kwon Do, however. I think I sort of value health, but it’s not high on my priority list.

      So in my pet example I’ve identified at least one tribal value I have that might not be really authentic: Health. I like being healthy, but am I committed to it? Passionate about it? Probably not.


      What do you want to value, but you have to admit that deep down you really don’t? What inauthentic tribal baggage do you carry?

      Bonus Incentive

      I’m really curious about what this exercise can turn up, so I’m offering an incentive:

      If you reply publicly with this exercise before midnight Friday, April the 10th, having found at least one inauthentic tribal value, I’ll create a free header for your website (or a similar graphic of your choosing).

      I want to have so many replies that I regret making the offer, so get cracking!