Hidden Tribes of America


The Hidden Tribes shed light on our polarization by drawing on established scientific research to understand the basic motivations driving people’s behavior. Social scientists have long studied the underlying psychology of core beliefs and group identities― the fundamental ways we understand the world and align ourselves with others. Our core beliefs influence what we think, what we consider important, and how we act. The Hidden Tribes report is the first time this broad range of insights about core beliefs and tribalism have been the focus of a truly comprehensive national opinion survey. For this reason, we are confident it provides many new insights into the roots of our polarization.

The Hidden Tribes survey asked Americans about their underlying views and ways of seeing the world. The results help to explain why there is such a striking degree of coherence in how a person responds to seemingly unrelated issues: Core beliefs are the foundation of many of our views. Like a city building, our political outlook is built on a handful of pillars―our core beliefs and the groups we align with―that provide scaffolding for the rest of the structure.

Core Belief 1: Group Identity and Tribalism in America. Perhaps the most important aspect of the hidden architecture underlying political behavior is people's group identities. Social scientists have long recognized that people see their own groups as a strong source of self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Consequently, these tribal identities have significant influence over people’s views. This helps explain, for example, the popular social media post showing men in t-shirts that proudly proclaim “I’d rather be a Russian than Democrat.”

Through our questions, we measured several aspects of tribalism, including individuals’ pride in their group and the degree to which they believed their group members had a lot in common. Overall, we found the Wings showed far more tribalism than the middle groups. A strong relationship also exists between people’s pride in their racial group and certain other political opinions. For instance, white people with a strong racial identity are significantly more likely to believe that America needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules or to decide that Confederate monuments are symbols of Southern pride.

Core Belief 2: Perceived Threat. People diverge in the amount of danger they perceive in the world. Some people see the world as a largely safe place with isolated pockets of violence. Others see the world as threatening, with isolated pockets of tranquility. To test people’s degree of perceived threat, the survey asked them how much they agree with the statement, "The world is becoming a more and more dangerous place." This basic sense of threat versus security is strongly correlated with people’s views on a wide variety of other issues, including immigration and terrorism. Progressive Activists also stand out from other groups as the most secure of any tribe by far. They view threats to their safety as fearmongering by their opponents, not a clear and present danger to their wellbeing. Simultaneously, Progressive Activists hold the most pessimistic views about the country's future.

Core Belief 3: Parenting Style and Authoritarianism. Recent research has found that people’s tendency towards authoritarianism―that is, their support for strong leaders and strict social hierarchy―is linked to their views on parenting style. For example, people who deem it more important for a child to be "well-behaved" than “creative” are more likely to endorse an authoritarian ethic. The Hidden Tribes report confirms those findings. How Americans view parenting closely tracks their views on many political issues. For example, people who endorsed a strict parenting style are more likely to oppose gay marriage, believe that America needs more faith and religion than reason and science, and worry about a decline in family values. These connections with parenting style are shown in the figure below.

Core Belief 4: Moral Foundations. Morality is about more than just equal treatment. The 2012 book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which provides important insights into the ways in which morality underlies political behavior, explains how morality is comprised of at least five pillars. These pillars, also called moral foundations, are:

  • Fairness/Cheating: Relating to proportionality, equality, reciprocity, and rendering justice according to shared rules.

  • Care/Harm: Protecting the vulnerable and helping those in need.

  • Authority/Subversion: Submitting to tradition and legitimate authority.

  • Purity/Disgust: Abhorrence for things that evoke disgust.

  • Loyalty/Betrayal: Standing with one’s group, family or nation.

We asked subjects a series of questions designed to assess how concerned they were with each of the five moral foundations in their moral judgments. Our results showed strong distinctions according to the various tribes. Progressive Activists and Traditional and Passive Liberals tended to care more about Harm and Fairness than the other foundations, while right-leaning groups such as Traditional and Devoted Conservatives cared about all five foundations.

Subjects' concern about each of the foundations closely tracks their views on other issues. For example, the degree to which people prioritize Loyalty strongly predicts the view that the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern pride, and people who prioritize Authority are most likely to support the Trump administration’s decision to ban travel from several Muslim-majority countries.

Tribes differ in their endorsement of the moral foundations

Progressive ActivistsTraditional LiberalsPassive LiberalsPolitically DisengagedTraditional ConservativesModeratesDevoted ConservativesAuthorityFairnessPurity 345CareLoyalty Full question texts can be found in Appendix 2.1.Source: More in Common (2018)

Devoted ConservativesProgressive ActivistsTraditional ConservativesModeratesPolitically DisengagedPassive LiberalsTraditional LiberalsAuthorityFairnessLoyalty Purity 345CareFull question texts can be found in Appendix 2.1.Source: More in Common (2018)

Core Belief 5: Personal Agency and Responsibility. People differ in whether they see life outcomes as being shaped more by individuals’ choices or social forces beyond their control. Conservatives tend to emphasize independence, responsibility and self-reliance, while liberals focus more on systemic injustices and collective responsibilities. Another way of conceptualizing this is that people tend to attribute life outcomes either to personal responsibility or to luck and circumstance. Some people believe that individuals should get credit for their successes because they were caused by factors within their control. Others believe that outcomes are mostly the result of external forces. These views have important implications. For example, the more people believe that luck played a role in life, the more likely they are to support Black Lives Matter activists. By contrast, people who believe that personal responsibility plays a bigger role are more than four times more likely to strongly approve of Donald Trump’s performance than those who believe that luck and circumstance did.

Tribes differ in their views on the role of personal responsibility in life outcomes

5Progressive ActivistsTraditional LiberalsPassive Liberals Politically DisengagedModeratesTraditional ConservativesDevoted ConservativesSome people’s situations are so challenging that no amount of work will allow them to find successPeople who work hard can find success no matter what situation they were born into8787717373195All46Which of the following statements do you agree with more?Source: More in Common (2018)92222383636954% Agree

5Progressive ActivistsTraditional Liberals Passive LiberalsPolitically DisengagedModeratesTraditional ConservativesDevoted ConservativesSome people’s situations are so challenging that no amount of work will allow them to find successPeople who work hard can find success no matter what situation they were born into8787717373195All46Which of the following statements do you agree with more?Source: More in Common (2018)92222383636954% Agree