June 26, 2022 Reading Time: 10 minutes

During the winter of 2021, journalist Virginia Heffernan sheltered from COVID in her upstate New York getaway. After a heavy snow, she was astonished when her Trump-supporting neighbor plowed her driveway. One could conclude that her neighbor saw an unprepared individual in need and acted with decency and kindness.

In her opinion essay for the Los Angeles Times, Heffernan revealed her tribal thinking as she weighed whether to offer thanks to her neighbor. After alluding to the Nazi occupation of France and Hezbollah’s policy of giving out free things in Lebanon, Heffernan concluded she could not give her neighbor “absolution.” She wrote, “Free driveway work, as nice as it is, is just not the same currency as justice and truth.” 

She tells us nothing of her neighbor other than he is a good snow plower and a “Trumpite.” Her neighbor saw her humanity; she saw him through her labels. 

A simple act of kindness from a neighbor became an opportunity for Virginia Heffernan to express her tribal prejudices. The basis of Heffernan’s perception was her tribal mindset and her inability to see the humanity in others. 

In his book Open, Johan Norberg writes, “Historically, we have expanded the circle of people we feel empathy for by discovering that we belong to groups that overlap the old divisions.” If she spoke to her neighbor, she might find they share a love for upstate New York, and maybe they have a hobby in common. Without her thinking getting in the way, she might discover they are both human beings striving to have a happy and purposeful life.  

This spring, in Wired, Heffernan, without a trace of irony, observed of others: “When a person…grounds their serenity and joy in a false claim about reality, you do little but cause pain if you try to root it out.”

Heffernan’s false claims about the tribal nature of reality can instruct us all. She has assigned other people a terrible purpose. Other people are objects that either share her views or are against her. The character and actions of others don’t matter. What matters is the maligned category Heffernan has assigned to them. 

In his book, Less than Human, philosopher David Livingstone Smith explains that “Journalists have always had an important role to play in disseminating falsehoods to mold public opinion, and this often involves dehumanizing military and political opponents.” Smith quotes Aldous Huxley, who explained we lose our “scruples” when a “human being is spoken of as though he were not a human being, but as the representative of some wicked principle.”

Heffernan doesn’t seem ready to examine the cost of her tribal thinking. Why would we see the havoc it creates if we think our mindset works for us? What if the “justice” Heffernan is seeking can emerge only when tribal thinking is relinquished?

One of the most damaging illiberal beliefs is the belief in the supremacy of the tribe. From that meta-belief, other illiberal beliefs flow. Mistakenly believing others are less worthy, it becomes easy to fail to see the humanity in others. From that mistake, it is easy to adopt a zero-sum mindset and believe all that matters is one’s own welfare and the welfare of the group with which one is identified. Freedom for me but not for thee is a zero-sum mindset.

Tribalism is the belief in the supremacy of one’s group identity over individual rights. Tribal identity fosters negative feelings, even hatred, toward those outside the tribe. In the grips of the tribal mindset, we see the world through a lens of us vs. them, victims and victimizers. “They” are out to get me is an oft-heard refrain. We are certain our tribe deserves more than it has. 

Tribalism rests on the destructive mental delusion of denying the humanity of others:  I am fundamentally different and separate from those I’m judging. 

A second, more destructive delusion can follow from the first: My well-being depends on destroying or marginalizing those from whom I am different. 

Matt Ridley explains in his book The Origins of Virtue, the “tendency of human societies to fragment into competing groups has left us with minds all too ready to adopt prejudices and pursue genocidal feuds.”

Zero-Sum Thinking

Most of us learned long ago to value human cooperation; we recognize that harming others doesn’t foster either our own well-being or the well-being of others. 

Many don’t have the same probity when it comes to harming others indirectly through the coercive agents of government. In business, some seek subsidies, tariffs, or demand government force people to buy their products, such as ethanol and vaccines. Some want loans canceled. Others want to live rent-free. Still others want a guaranteed annual income. 

The mindset driving all these examples is zero-sum thinking. Zero-sum thinking—the philosophy that someone else must lose so I can win—is a mistaken idea that destroys lives and economies. Is zero-sum thinking, fueled by growing tribalism, threatening human cooperation and progress? 

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently observed, “There is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales,” adding that “[N]ew technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) …created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning. Zero-sum conflicts…were better thought of as temporary setbacks…”

Norberg asks, “Why are we so bad at understanding that voluntary relations and an open economy are non-zero?” It is not possible to change the nature of reality, but it is possible to adopt beliefs at odds with reality and experience harsh consequences. Norberg points us toward understanding how our failure to understand reality has polarized politics: 

Almost every kind of angst the nationalist Right and the populist Left feels over the economy is based on it [zero-sum thinking] in one form or another. If the rich get richer, it’s because they take it from us. With more immigrants, there are fewer resources left for the natives. If robots become smarter, there will be no jobs left for us. If trading partners like China and Mexico gain, it must be at our expense. 

Neither conservatives nor progressives are immune from zero-sum mindsets. Today, with inflation raging, many are sure greedy supermarkets and energy producers are responsible. Not understanding that the Fed and politicians are culpable, it is easy to have strong opinions about which prices and salaries are too “high.” 

To be fair, lies propagated by government generate malcontent feelings and zero-sum thinking. If, as President Biden claims, “America has achieved the most robust recovery in modern history,” why are your finances feeling squeezed? Someone or something must be holding you back while others are getting ahead. This is not fair, you might reason. And the President is eager to channel your anger, greedy corporations are part of the problem that he will solve. 

For those gripped by zero-sum thinking, economist Don Boudreaux’s simple, clear demolition of the greed hypothesis goes unheeded.

Those who practice identity politics teach the hateful idea that one group’s success must have been obtained by keeping another group down. Today, hate-based racial discrimination is openly encouraged on the grounds of rectifying past wrongs. Norberg observes, “The more we talk about one way of grouping people, the more likely it is that people will align themselves accordingly.”

We are reverting to a more primitive form of social organization. In a closed society, tribal antagonism to those labeled as different is the norm. In contrast, Norberg observes, “In the modern, open economy our relationship with outsiders has been turned on its head. Since it is based on the rule of law, property rights and voluntary exchange, people can only prosper by creating something of value to others.” Norberg continues,

If a prince, nobleman or robber wanted our money in the past, they just took it from us. If a businessman wants our money, he has to offer us goods or services that we value so much that we are willing to give up our money to lay our hands on them. If another tribe got more skills and resources, it used to be dangerous because it meant they could more easily conquer us, winning the zero-sum game between us. Today, if a tribe on the other shore invents a photoelectric sensor or manages to harness power from the sun, it means we get access to smart electronic devices and unlimited energy.

To be clear, markets are corrupted by zero-sum thinking when governments subsidize and protect politically connected cronies. 

Your Beliefs Lie

We believe the tribal prejudices we adopt are genuine, but Norberg offers us actionable advice. “My firm conviction,” he writes, “is that it is precisely because we are so tribalist that we need an open, cosmopolitan world. If we did not regularly meet and communicate and exchange with individuals from other groups, they would forever remain the mysterious, dangerous outgroup, the barbarians at the gates.” 

We may feel confident that the differences we observe are significant, yet we tend to “see” what we have already decided is true. Research findings of psychologist Henri Tajfel, whose family was murdered during the Holocaust, revealed that the mind’s default setting might be tribal thinking. Norberg explains,

In a series of experiments, Tajfel and his colleagues measured ingroup bias when groups were based on irrelevant differences. These studies were intended to give a baseline for comparisons, and then the researchers could add negative stereotypes and other conditions to see what created conflict. But disappointingly, they didn’t have to do that. People expressed ingroup loyalty and outgroup discrimination just by being included in a group, even though differences were trivial and they did not know who the other members were, had never met them and couldn’t even hear them.

For example, “In one study, students were shown paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, asked to express their preferences, and then divided into groups they were told were based on those preferences.”  The results were “when a ‘Kandinsky student’ was asked to allocate rewards to strangers anonymously, he preferred other Kandinskys to Klees.” Further, “the students wanted to create as large a difference as possible between members of the two groups, even if it meant a lower reward for the members of their own group.”

Tajfel found that even when groups were assigned randomly, us still wanted to beat them and was willing to suffer as long as they suffered more. Our tribal thinking justifies feelings that support our absurd and destructive behavior.

Vladimir’s Choice

In totalitarian societies, the destructive tendency in human mindsets that Tajfel’s studies revealed has been called “Vladimir’s choice.” Norberg recounts the Eastern European fable:

God appears before Vladimir, a poor peasant farmer, and tells him he will grant him one wish. Before Vladimir chooses, God adds a caveat: ‘Anything I give to you will be granted to your neighbour Ivan, twice over.’ Vladimir frowns, contemplates, and suddenly lights up as he concocts the perfect plan: ‘OK, take out one of my eyes.’

Has a critical mass of Americans adopted “Vladimir’s” destructive error? A reasonable observer might see warning lights flashing. 

American Vladimirs oppose free trade. They oppose medical freedom. They dislike the rule of law. They oppose property rights. They oppose free speech and disdain others who don’t share their views. Someone must lose, so I can win. Kill or be killed. They would rather have less, just so long as the groups they despise have even less than they do. The Vladimir mindset is not compatible with a peaceful society and prosperity. 

The state of society is a lagging indicator of the strength of our adherence to principles that promote human flourishing and cooperation.

Ahistorical Americans are unaware of the dire consequences that follow from tribal thinking; they do not understand the conditions that foster human progress. Norberg quotes British physicist David Deutsch as saying, “Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in the history of our species.” Norberg adds,

If our last 300,000 years were condensed into a twenty-four-hour day, the two hundred years when almost everything happened would be the last minute. The best minute ever. This is the astonishing minute where our long lifespans, our safety, our health, wealth and technology come from. But these sixty seconds are, however, not where our brains and our instincts and attitudes come from. Those emerged during the previous 86,400 seconds. And of course, our prehistory is much, much longer than the last 300,000 years.

Norberg argues our minds are easily adapted to a zero-sum mindset: 

During some 99.9 percent of our species’ existence, individual human beings did not experience progress, innovations and mutual benefits with strangers. It was, in most cases, a zero-sum game for most individuals: someone’s gain was another one’s loss. More for you meant less for me. If our minds developed during such circumstances, it is no wonder that they are adapted to this.

Some want to believe that progress can be sustained at the ballot box. Norberg points out it is absurd to believe “we are aggressive egomaniacs privately who become enlightened social beings at the ballot box.” He adds,

On the contrary, we are often searching for win–win outcomes with others in our personal relations on the market and in civil society, since that benefits us and the community the most, but when we start thinking about ourselves as belonging to a group that is competing against another group, we are willing to sacrifice our eyes and wealth to make the others worse off.

The warning signs flash that economic stagnation is ahead. Norberg observes,

In episodes of economic stagnation, they feel like the outgroup’s progress is bought at their expense, which leads to more discrimination, hostility to immigrants and scapegoating of minorities. At times it creates a vicious circle of group warfare, violence and a breakdown of open institutions, which in turn reduces prosperity, which increases group warfare and so on.4 After all, the surest way to win a zero-sum game is to play it against a dead adversary.

The first step towards breaking loose from a zero-sum mindset is to realize what it costs you. You won’t give up a mindset that you believe is benefiting you. Take a moment to reflect. You might be a non-zero-sum thinker in economics, but in your personal life, not so much. Believing there is only so much love to go around, neediness, and a desire to be special complicate one’s relationships. When you can’t let go of grievances against individuals, you might be prone to hold grievances against groups. 

Zero-sum thinking works overtime to undermine a happy, purposeful life. As Simon Sinek points out, “There is no such thing as coming in first in marriage or friendship.” Sinek adds, “No matter how successful we are in life, when we die, none of us will be declared the winner of life.” 

In our business life, we, like Trump, might shoot for trades that “crush the opponent” rather than trades where “both sides win.” When you believe your zero-sum mindset protects you and makes you successful, what your mindset costs you remain invisible. 

Zero-sum mindsets are all around us. Watching an action-thriller, we expect the bad guys to lose and the good guys to triumph. Sporting events are inherently zero-sum, with winners and losers. There is nothing wrong with enjoying movies or sports, but it is good to notice how often zero-sum thinking is reinforced. Seeing infinite possibilities where all can win does not necessarily come naturally. If we don’t discipline our minds, us vs. them weeds sprout quickly and dominate our emotional landscape. 

Imagine a future stagnating America where tribal, zero-sum thinking abounds—fear is heightened, trust is eroded. “Others” are viewed as dangerous, not part of common humanity. Buying the lies of tribalism, we fail to question all the hatreds that zero-sum thinking generates.

Prepare now to transcend zero-sum tribal thinking. You can begin by supporting non-crony commerce in all its magnificent win-win forms. In The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine wrote:

I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend to its effects. It is a pacific system, operating to cordialize mankind, by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other. If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments. 

“Useful to each other” means there are bonds that unite us all. Remember, over the past 200 years, explosive economic growth and advances in material well-being came as we transcended tribal thinking. Embrace the reality of a common humanity shared with all. We descend into primitive tribal thinking at our peril. 

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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