Summary and book reviews of Us and Them by David Berreby

Us and Them

Understanding Your Tribal Mind

by David Berreby

Us and Them
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2008, 396 pages

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Book Summary

Berreby shows how our "tribal'' sense is a part of human nature, expressing itself in every aspect of life, effecting our thoughts, our health and our society more than we realize.

There are so many ways to sort people. We all do it, all the time. From everyday decisions (whom to invite to dinner?) to life choices (whom to marry?) to the great turning points of history (whom to war against?), we're guided by an ever-present sense, in any situation, of who belongs with whom, and what that belonging means. Everyone is part of many groups at once, of course - you might be a woman, a parent, a Republican, an American, and a Hindu. So, how do we decide which identities matter? Why do they matter so much? What makes people willing to die, or to kill, for a religion, nation, race, or caste?

In this groundbreaking book, David Berreby shows how science tackles these questions of group identity. Drawing on new findings from anthropology to neuroscience, he argues that this "tribal'' sense is a part of human nature, expressing itself in every aspect of life.

The effects run deep, shaping our lives and opportunities. Us and Them elegantly explains how this tribal sense:

     
  • Alters our thoughts. Show older people a negative image of the aged, and they act more feeble. Asian women reminded of their Asian heritage did better on a math test than those who were reminded they were women. In a small room, the lone holdout against a group's opinion usually gives in and changes - even when it's obvious that the group is wrong.
  • Affects our health. People's sense of their place in society directly links to measures of stress, depression, and cholesterol levels.
  • Affects our society more than we realize, because it can be manipulated for good and for ill. Tribal rhetoric has made people feel that injustice and oppression are perfectly normal, for instance, while at other times, it has led them to set aside hatred in favor of reconciliation. One experimenter made a group of young summer campers into warring "tribes''; and, just as easily, he brought them back together. Us and Them explains how and why the tribal "buttons'' are pushed.

We can't live without our tribal sense. It tells us who we are and how we should behave. It frees us from the narrow confines of the self, linking us to others and the past and the future. Some condemn this instinct, as if it were only a source of evil. Others celebrate it, as if loyalty and faith were never misused. David Berreby brilliantly describes a third alternative: how we can accept and understand our inescapable tribal mind.

CHAPTER ONE
"THAT'S OUR BIGGEST DIFFERENCE"

All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We And every one else is They.
- Rudyard Kipling, "A Friend of the Family".

Scientists, when they turn their attention to people, usually talk about the entire human race or about the individual human being. Those are two faces of the same idea. Truth about all is truth about each; a theory about the mind or morality applies to everyone who ever lived, as well as to you in particular. Either perspective yields big explanations, which make many predictions to test and suggest many experiments. It's where researchers like to be - working on "the" genome, or "the" brain, or "the" self.

They aren't nearly as comfortable with the categories in between one person and all people - the ones that ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Library Journal

... fascinating ... Not since Gordon Allport's Nature Of Prejudice has . . . belonging and not belonging received such serious treatment.

Booklist - Carol Haggas

At a time when everything from high-school initiations to ethnic genocide can trace its root to such segregationist tendencies, Berreby's thought-provoking analysis is essential.

Kirkus Reviews

A provocative investigation of the tribal mindset.

Publishers Weekly

An impressively well-researched work ... may not break any new intellectual ground, but it does offer an entertaining survey of a vast, and vastly important, topic of study.

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Beyond the Book

David Berreby says, "Us And Them is a book about research and ideas. But I suppose its emotional roots are in my struggles to cope with people who think their way of dividing up humanity must be the only one around."

If  you enjoy the except at BookBrowse, you might also enjoy Berreby's Us and Them Blog.

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