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Two tribes

When two tribes go to war

A point is all that you can score

Two Tribes - Frankie Goes to Hollywood[1]

So, what connects Frankie Goes to Hollywood with equality, diversity and inclusion?  Their 1984 hit, Two tribes, illustrates a human psychological theme that can lead to discrimination and exclusion.  Two tribes is about ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ or Social Identity Theory.

Co-operate or die

My tribe or your tribe is Social Identity Theory.  It’s a fundamental part of our human nature that drives us to form and maintain societies. It comes from our genetic and psychological heritage over millions of years.  Our capacity for co-operation in our tribe, helped us over millennia to survive in dangerous and hostile environments. Social co-operation, along with our brains, has made us the apex predator of the Earth. Or as Ned Stark told Arya in Game of Thrones:

When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.[2]

My tribe

cut out people shapes on a blue background
Tribe blue

Social Identity Theory came out of Henri Tajfel’s research in the 1970s. This discovered our deep need to belong, to be part of a tribe. We can be both an active tribe member or supporters.  It is common for a football supporter to feel a warm fuzzy glow, the reflected glory when our team do well.  Strangely, you also get a warm fuzzy glow from watching the match on the sofa with a beer.

Red versus Blue

cut out people shapes on a red background
Tribe Red

Preference for my tribe over the other tribe develops at a young age.  In a research study with 5 year olds[3], the children were put into red or blue groups. The children liked other children more who were in the same colour group as them.

Tribe identifiers can be as simple and as meaningless as the colours red or blue.  As simple as Manchester United vs Manchester City, or, Arsenal vs Chelsea.

So why are tribes a problem?

Tribes can be a problem because they create an in-group (your tribe) and an out-group (somebody else’s tribe).  We focus on building cohesive workplaces, schools and colleges by promoting the in-group.  We want our people to feel they belong. To be proud that they’re Gryffindors and not Slytherins - like the Hogwarts school houses in Harry Potter.[4]

Gryffindors vs Slytherins

But creating the in-group - where people belong - also implies an out-group - where people don’t belong.  This can lead us to bias, prejudice and discrimination to members of the out-group. Pride as a Gryffindor can lead to denigration of Slytherins.  At its worst we can legitimise our discrimination by dehumanising and othering the out-group. The present and the past show multiple examples of in-groups oppressing out-groups.

How do we solve the problems of out-group discrimination?

We start by recognising that, creating an in-group may lead to implicit out-groups. By recognising that our deep need to belong to a tribe, a company, or an organisation, means we treat our in-group members better than the out-groups.

Some actions for you to get started with:

  • Promote Equality: Consciously ensuring fair treatment for everyone by controlling our in-group favouritism.
  • Look for Commonality: focussing on what links us rather than what makes us different. The out-group is not so different from us.  Supporters of Manchester United and Manchester City are both football fans.  Many of them are also Mancunians and Northerners
  • Get to know each other: the opportunity to understand and know different people and groups, reduces bias.

Two tribes

Is part of our social psychology. Tribal affiliation has kept us safe for hundreds and thousands of years.  We feel psychologically safer and happier when we belong to a tribe, a company, or an organisation.  The concern is when we define people as out-groups and treat them unfairly.


When two tribes go to war/ a point is all that you can score

To develop fairness and equality in your organisation, speak to Sunsurfer Consultancy.

Michael Fellowes, December 2023


[1] Two Tribes

[2] A Game of Thrones – George RR Martin

[3] Consequences of “Minimal” Group Affiliations in Children - Yarrow Dunham, Andrew Scott Baron, Susan Carey

[4] J K Rowling Wizarding World

4 thoughts on “Two tribes

  1. Jane

    I love this article - it's a great reminder that, while tribal affiliations have been a part of our history, we have the power to foster inclusivity and reduce bias.

    1. michael_fellowes

      Absolutely. If we are aware of our tribal affiliations we can work to be unbiased and inclusive.


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