Tribal Salience

Judith Rich Harris offers an intriguing extrapolation of the Robbers Cave findings to the question of individual personalities. Her idea is that each of us in fact belongs to multiple groups, and the one whose mores hold sway over us at any given moment depends on the presence or absence of other groups. The key term she uses is salience. In the case of the Robbers Cave boys, the presence of the Eagles, at a baseball game say, made membership in the Rattlers salient for the boys of that group and vice versa. But when an outside group is present, truck drivers for instance, the salient group ceases to be Eagles or Rattlers and becomes simply Robbers Cave boys.

Harris sees this salience dynamic potentially operating at any level from nations down to individuals. According to her theory, our individual personalities can be viewed as membership in the tribe of me. This is why even within our groups we compete. Harris believes that peer groups, as opposed to families, are the most important developmental influences on who we become. But if there are no rival peer groups around to make our own group salient then we are free to jockey for status. If we aren't capable of taking over the top slots of the group hierarchy, then we resort to carving out a specified niche--subordinate perhaps, but integral nonetheless. And that is the source of our individual personalities.

"The Nurture Assumption" is the book in which Harris puts forth this theory; it is at once fascinating and infuriating. I have several problems with the personality development theory itself, but my biggest beef is with Harris's pseudoscientific attempt to pillory Frank Sulloway, whose account of the effects of birth order in "Born to Rebel" is just as interesting and less histrionic. (I spent some time a few years ago researching Harris's charges against Sulloway and came to the conclusion that her criticisms were either ad hominem, ad hoc, or just silly.) However, I find her characterization of group dynamics useful in helping to give a clearer impression of what I mean by tribalism, a word Harris doesn't use herself but which I think well suits what she describes.

So, to keep the thread running, on September 10th, 2001 we were Republicans and Democrats, but the presence of an outside group the next morning made our Americanness far more salient.