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The Neurology of Tribalism: A Conceptual Analysis



A brief discussion of the role of genetics in the formation of tribalistic beliefs with implications for criminal justice interventions.
Richard Althouse, Ph.D.
"The only good Indian I ever saw was a dead one." General Philip Sheraton
"...border state lawmen now began to notice alarming behavior among the
indolent Mexicans. They would smoke this weed and it would make them
crazy. Wild, fearless, they would chop people up with axes and not
remember a thing." (McWilliams, 1990, p. 48)
"The American response to crime cannot be divorced from a history of
equating black struggle...with black villainy. (Coates, 2015, p. 72).
` `
"...criminological research has little direct impact on crime control policy
or practice." (Noaks and Wincup, 2004, p. 33).
"Be sorry before, not after. That way you use your mind to make your
way rather than to repair it." anonymous Korean proverb.
As a correctional mental health provider, when you meet with an inmate,
especially one of a different race, do you experience "secret" thoughts about
this individual, like "loser," "smart," "stupid," or "inferior"? If so, you are
likely not alone. Implicit cognition research strongly suggests that our
conscious decisions and actions may likely be influenced by unconscious
positive or negative cognitions about situations and people, regardless of
their truth (e.g., Gawronski & Payne, 2010).
Although implicit cognitions are formed as we develop from an early age
and may later generalize into unconscious beliefs about situations and
people, one might wonder if we are genetically predisposed to having
specific ones, and how such genetic predisposition might evolve into the
formation of tribalistic beliefs that influence the thoughts and behaviors of
future generations of tribal members.
Readers may think this wonderment a little far afield from criminal justice, it
is not if we consider this definition of a tribe: A "tribe" is a collection of
individuals who subscribe to specific ways of thinking and behaving.
Tribalism is simply the state of these individuals organizing into a social
structure that advocates for the beliefs and behaviors of the tribe and
generally opposes those of different tribes in proportion to the differences.
Tribal membership entails being naturally suspicious of members of
different tribes, commands compliance with its rules and regulations, and
violators of tribal rules and regulations are often not treated well. Members
of other tribes are often treated worse. There are many such tribes based on
race, religion, social status, political persuasion, gender, age, profession, and
so on, and tribal beliefs and traditions can endure for thousands of years.
Having just returned from 15 days in the Middle East visiting Turkey,
Greece, and Croatia, I thought that listening to the daily sung and somewhat
haunting calls to prayer in Istanbul while learning of the bombing in Ancora,
the protests in Istanbul, seeing jet fighters fly overhead, a U.S. navy missle-
laden warship tied to a nearby pier, and Kurdish soldiers releasing ISIS
hostages in which an American soldier was killed, were all reminders of
what can happen when long-standing tribal religious and sociocultural
beliefs of one tribe conflict with those of another.
America has its own history of tribalistic activities and conflict. With the
evolution of the white supremacy movement of the late 1800s, consider
white-based history with native Americans, opium smoking Chinese,
members of the black race brought over as slaves, marijuana smoking
Mexicans, not to mention the long-standing cultural and political beliefs
about women. We--generally members of the male white race-- incarcerated
the Chinese for smoking opium, often brutalized blacks, relegated many
Native America tribes to treaty-based reservations where many now
experience poverty, alcoholism, and drug addiction, thought of Mexicans as
drug-crazed on marijuana, and prevented women from voting (see, for
example, Stannard's book American Holocaust (1992), Gray's Drug Crazy
(1998), Alexander's book The New Jim Crow (2010), and widely available
articles on the women's suffrage movement in the 19th century).
These centuries-old tribalistic-like beliefs still extend into today's
sociopolitical and criminal justice arenas. Think of the pro-life vs pro-choice
conflicts, the Republican political resistance to having a black President. and
the conflicts between our political parties (each tribes in their own right)
over such issues as abortion, Planned Parenthood, even having a woman
President, not to mention how the racially and economically slanted wars on
drugs and crime have reportedly disadvantaged members of minority races,
particularly those of the black race (e.g., Coates, 2015). More recently, we
have experienced the impacts of the war on crime, the war on drugs, gang
wars, not to mention the shootings and killings of black individuals by white
police officers, leading to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Many of
these tribalistic-type conflicts can be characterized as the "good guys" versus
the "bad guys," the social mentality of which is very resistive to change,
even in the face of evidence-based negative feedback.
How do we explain these persistent tribal approaches to social issues that
often involve negative beliefs that result in the oppression, social isolation,
and even murdering of others in one way or another? The simplest, most
self-evident and logical answer--although one never mentioned in
discussions about them-- is that they are the genetic and epigenetic
extensions of a combination of evolved survival functions of the human
For example, anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course
learned that despite the thousands of years of evolution of the human brain,
we still genetically retain the subcortical areas responsible for our survival
instincts, often referred to as the "primate brain." Among the genetically-
determined instinctive responses we have at birth is the ability to quickly
identify and imprint on our caretakers. This led to later research that
suggested that as brains develop, there are critical periods of time when
important learning takes place in the interests of future social and
reproductive survival. Such learning often involves the release of endorphins
that reinforces what is learned. Over time, we learn who and what to like,
not like, and why (truth is not a necessary component here).
These learnings eventually consolidate into tribalistic belief systems that can
result in the well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias, a tendency--
often outside our awareness-- to prefer and confirm what we believe about
situations and others not quite like us, and disavowing contrary information,
even if the disavowing information is more evidence-based. Where is this
information stored? In our brains, of course.
In their book The Neural Basis of Human Belief Systems, editors Frank
Kruger and Jordan Grafman presented a series of research-based articles that
show that various parts of our brains are activated when certain beliefs are
elicited (e.g., political, religious, moral), and that certain biases our outside
the subjects' awareness (Kruger & Grafman, 2013). Additionally, recent
research has suggested that when life experiences influence genetic
expression, these genetic changes might be passed on to offspring
(Weinhold, 2006), possibly resulting in the next generation genetically
predisposed to having similar cognitions and behaviors should they be
exposed to them. Although complex, this is a simply conceptualized model
of genetically-determined linear learning that contributes to tribalism.
What are the implications of this brain-based as opposed to behavior-based
point of view for criminal justice? Historically, crime management
strategies has been behavior-based. Despite debates about effectiveness, in
the absence of viable alternatives criminological research has continued to
focus on how to manage and reduce criminal behaviors through deterrence
measures (fines, probation, incarceration) in later years, ostensibly in the
interests of public safety. However, more recent genetic research has shown
a distinct genetic correlation between parenting styles in early years and a
child's later social adjustment (Popcak, 2014). Teneyck and Barnes showed
that genetics likely played a more important role in delinquent behavior than
delinquent peer influences (Teneyck & Barnes, 2015).
This research strongly suggests that genetic and neural-based interventions
may offer an increased array of preventive criminal justice options. So the
first implication for criminal justice is since a percentage, perhaps a high
percentage, of criminal behaviors are shaped by inherited genetic and
negative epigenetic childhood parenting and social experiences, one should
focus on how to remediate these epigenetic influences, both in those
genetically predisposed to act in antisocial ways, and those genetically
predisposed to emotionally overreact to them.
The second implication stems from the first. If we can recognize the roles
that genetics and epigenetics have in the formation and persistence of our
implicit cognitions, beliefs and behaviors contributing to crime and its
management, it may be more possible to intervene--particularly in
childhood-- in ways that have more robust benefits in terms of crime
prevention. creating prosocial implicit cognitions and shaping subsequent
prosocial behaviors in later years.
There is the popular question "Why can't we all just get along? The best
answer is likely because under specific circumstances we're genetically
programmed not to. However, that is no excuse for not doing what we can to
better understand and manage the gravitational pulls of our genetic
inheritance when circumstances warrant. Can we really rewire our social
brains? That remains to be seen. Hopefully, the recent regrets of President
Clinton for signing legislation that drove up the nations incarceration
numbers, and President Obama recently noting in his October 27th speech at
the annual IACP conference "that having millions of black and Latino men
in the criminal justice system without any ability for most of them to find a
job after release is not a sustainable situation," are steps in the right
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the
Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.
Coates, T. (2015). The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.
The Atlantic. October, 2015.
Gawronski, B., & Payne, B. K. (Eds.) (2010). Handbook of Implicit Social
Cognition: Theory and Application. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Kruger, F., & Grafman, J. (Eds). 2013. The neural basis of human
belief systems. Psychology Press, New York, NY: Routledge.
McWilliams, J. C. (1990). The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1962. Newark, NJ: University of
Delarware Press.
Noaks, L., & Wincup, E. (2004). Criminological Research; Understanding
Qualitative Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Popcak, G. (2014). Parenting style affects children's genetics.
Stevenson, B. (2015). Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption. New
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Stannard, D. E. (1992). The Conquest of the New World: American
Holocaust. New York, NY,: Oxford Press.
Teneyck, M., & Barnes, J. C. (2015). Examining the impact of peer group
selection on self-reported delinquency: A consideration of active gene-
environment correlation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 42, 7, 741-762.
Weinhold, B. (2006). Epigenetics: the Science of Change. Environmental
Health Perspective, 114, 3, A160-A167.
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