Us vs Them: Does Human Nature Divide or Unite?


Everywhere in the world, people exhibit certain common patterns of behavior. We dub these patterns inherently human, and we recognize them as the bond which ties us together. Even so, these patterns can often be divisive and work against human togetherness. Take the human tendency to be tribal for instance. We may think of tribalism as a forgotten method of human interaction, now eradicated in our modern world, but tribalism still exists in very meaningful ways.

Tribalism is the natural tendency for people to identify with certain groups and display loyalty towards those groups, or “tribes”. In primates, this tribalistic tendency takes the form of territorial violence, in which male apes who grew up together will work together to pick off neighboring males and secure their territory. What drives primates to join certain groups and fight others? What differs between each group of apes? You might notice that, well, it’s entirely random which tribe any individual ape belongs to. Every ape was born into a group and displays a tribalistic loyalty to their kin. There is no genetic difference between tribes of apes, and there is little behavioral difference, but the primates still band together and fight each other based purely on tribal instincts.

We may not realize it, but a similar tribalism is visible in human behavior, and it is strongly based on cultural differences. We form groups with people of the same race, same gender, and people with the same interests as us. Our brains are hardwired to quickly differentiate between “us” and the “others”.

Psychological experiments have shown that our brains subconsciously react negatively when we are faced with foreign groups. In one experiment investigating racial relationships, white test subjects were shown images of white people and images of people from other races. The amygdala, the brain’s center for fear-related emotions, fired faster in the subjects’ brains when they were shown images of non-white people. Then, the brain’s impulse control center sprung to quell the initial fear caused by the amygdala, fighting the initial negative reaction. We aren’t consciously afraid of other races, but we are predisposed to recognize certain people as “others”.

Human biology pushes us to create us-them dichotomies, but our perceptions of who is on our team differ from animals’ perceptions. While primates form tribes with their close kin, humans form tribes with their cultural kin. We look for people who like the same sports team or like the same TV shows as us, and we form tribal bonds with them without having any previous relationship. This leads us to make bonds with total strangers simply because of shared traits.

In many ways, our ability to form tribes with strangers in this way unites humanity as a species. We can look past familial ties and begin interacting positively with other members of the human race. We see value in being with people who are the same as us. Also, we don’t completely shun people who don’t share our interests in one subject, because those same people might share our interests in another subject. In this way, human nature seems to give us the ability to work together and be collectively productive.

Even so, these same tribal instincts can divide us and incite violence. Toxic tribalism begins to occur when we emphasize our differences from certain people, and we use this to justify irrational hatred towards them. Nationalism is an example of how tribalism plays out in society. Good nationalism is when we emphasize our arbitrary connection to our nation to work together for the bettering of society and each other’s lives. Bad nationalism is when we emphasize that foreign groups don’t share our arbitrary national connection, and we begin to spur hatred and xenophobia.

By acknowledging our own tribal biases, we can prevent a descent into pointless hatred. Tribalism in human nature can lead us to think that certain groups of people are inherently different from us because of their characteristics, and they deserve to be hated, but by recognizing that many characteristics which we use to separate ourselves are actually arbitrary qualities which do not justify hatred at all. These tribal instincts also have the power to unite us into a cohesive and productive species. We have the power to guide these instincts towards division or unity.

Featured Image via KeraThink

About the author

Kartik is a new sophomore at St. Mark’s School. He lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and is a boarding student. He enjoys rowing, watching movies, and reading about current events. He is a member of St. Mark’s A Capella and enjoys singing for the school choir. In his free time, Kartik likes to work out with friends. This year, Kartik hopes to be a thoughtful contributor to the Parkman Post and create content which highlights unique perspectives on the news.


  1. Blake Gattuso

    Well said, Kartik. I love your point about nationalism!!

  2. Olivia Hammond

    It’s interesting that you regard Nationalism itself as a neutral entity, considering it’s often seen as such a negative thing in society today. Do you think that this is how we should be looking at Nationalism, as a possible tool for good?

  3. Nathaniel King

    Pretty sure we heard something about tribes in SM Leads and I like how you show them in a different light. The psychological experiment you mentioned sounds pretty interesting and I wouldn’t mind looking more into it.

  4. Kartik

    Hi Olivia!
    Yes, I think nationalism can have a place in bettering society. The idea is that good nationalism is the kinship between total strangers based purely on their common nation. One article I drew from stated that good nationalism can “prompt people to pay their taxes and care for their nation’s have-nots.” The reason nationalism is becoming more and more negative in the modern world has to do with globalization. People are now exposed to various cultures, and this means they are less incentivized to form “tribes” based on just nationality. Also, political figures often use nationalism to separate us from foreign people and vilify other nations to gain support, and this is bad nationalism.

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