Tribal Dynamics

7 min readJan 11, 2019


Vaguely Tribal Image

I recently wrote a first story and a second story about Spiral Dynamics in which I was fairly critical of that model. But I actually love Spiral Dynamics because it provides us with a very convenient shorthand for talking about different aspects of civilization and psychology, using colors:

Beige — Survival mode

Purple — Spiritual, tribal

Red — Ego, sex, domination

Blue — Tradition, norms, religion

Orange — Intellect, achievement

Green — Relativism, Deconstruction

Yellow — Integration

The idea is that society has gone through stages that have enabled different types of worldviews (v-memes) to develop, and that individuals go through corresponding stages. I’ll use the colors to describe a solution to what I see as one of the central problems of society: technology and society evolve faster than our brain, so our economic life and our spiritual life become fractured.

The Hero’s Journey

A modern life story might go something like this: a young person is raised in a tight family (Purple) that holds traditional values (Blue). Then the development of the ego (Red) gets channeled into an intellect (Orange) that exposes them to a lot of new ideas (e.g., by studying Nietzsche and trying LSD), which leads them to fully reject the past and stride boldly into a brave new world. But, after college they take a job (e.g., at an investment bank) and the modern economy rewards them with immense wealth (relative to survival needs). Eventually, they realize there are serious structural problems with this world/life. Their intellect turns on itself (Green), they quit their job and join a non-profit in Madagascar that allows them to find themselves once more (Yellow), so they can return home and found a startup.

This is the hero’s journey, in which the development of our ego is a call to adventure which leads us to leave the Purple/Blue womb of our childhood, descend into the abyss of new ideas, discover our economic power, and then atone for our sins (e.g., white privilege, etc.) and return to some kind of spiritual equilibrium:

So what’s wrong with this cycle? We don’t really have a lot of control over the first part, but I find the end-game offered by modern society to be severely lacking. In this very interesting podcast on Spiral Dynamics, they suggest that the experience of being Yellow (which is maybe-sorta comparable to the Gift of the Goddess in the hero’s journey) mostly consists of adopting a chameleon-like stance of pretending to be Blue or Orange in order to fit into your church and workplace. Is that really all there is to hope for in this life?

Somehow, this just doesn’t do it for me

I think we can do better, and so my theory is mostly about what to do after we have found our economic power. Instead of moving to Africa, I suggest that a more effective means of atonement is to return all the way through Blue back to Purple: to your tribe. Furthermore, I believe that the proper structure of a tribe is limited by both biological evolution, and our economic environment.

The nerds among us may be familiar with the idea of a Mech warrior. A Mech is a giant fighting machine typically occupied and controlled by a person. In a way, a modern tribe should function something like an emotional cockpit in an institutional Mech. It allows us to engage in a modern world dominated by machines (i.e., corporations that embody an incomprehensible division of labor), while taking into account that because of our biology we can only interact with particular kinds of psychological controls and we need a particular kind of emotional “life support.”

Somewhere in there, there’s a human breathing air

Biological and economic factors lead me to the following constraints: the tribe should consist of an inner circle with very limited membership (say, between 2–10 adults) and a somewhat broader outer circle (e.g., about 150 people). Your nuclear family (i.e., spouse) should be integrated in your inner circle, and your inner circle should be integrated with the outer circle.

Your inner circle should be permanent, and it should be the primary channel through which you express your economic power (Red/Ego and Orange/Intellect). Both the inner circle and the outer circle should be unified by a set of norms, traditions, and religious expressions (Blue).

The Inner Circle

Recently I have been reading the history of a family that became wealthy by leveraging the power of an inner circle: The House of Rothschild. The Rothschilds are fascinating for many reasons, but the main thing I was looking for was how the 5 brothers, children of the family patriarch Mayer Rothschild, managed to stay unified.

What I came away with was that they believed their unity was essential, and so they made (and periodically renewed) an economic covenant. The arrangement wasn’t perfect (or perfectly equal), but they were committed to sharing their economic successes and failures.

This kind of commitment isn’t easy. Finding one person (i.e., a spouse) that is willing to make a lifelong economic union is hard enough. But many people do find and commit to spouses because marriage is an established institution. That is, people are expected to get married, and our culture is permeated with stories that encourage us to channel our lust, our need for companionship, and our romanticism into an actual (more or less) permanent commitment. One of my goals is to develop, implement, and promote the institution of an inner circle.

In addition to an economic covenant, one of the other things I learned from the Rothschild is the value of communication. The 5 brothers wrote literally thousands of letters to each other (in what was basically their own made up language that combined aspects of Hebrew and German). This communication was essential to their economic success (which was largely based on being better informed than their rivals) but it also serve as a form of constant grooming.

The inner circle

In some sense, every inner circle needs to develop their own language. It is part of developing a set of norms and symbols that helps identify the boundaries of the group.

The book Fusion: The Psychology of Teams mentions three components of a strong team:

  1. Shared Intentions
  2. Group Bonding
  3. Shared Morality

Making an economic covenant is one way of ensuring that a group has powerful shared intentions. Another form of shared intentions may include shared responsibilities (i.e., responsibilities to the outer circle or the community).

The communication is a form of group bonding. Other forms may include going on vacations together, playing games together, engaging in charitable service together, etc. Having shared symbols (i.e., a group logo or crest) can also help establish a common identity.

So what about a shared morality? In some ways, morality is something that humanity shares, not just a particular inner circle. But there are at least two ways that an inner circle can engage in shared morality. The first is if there is an agreement that loyalty to the group itself constitutes a moral responsibility. The second is if the inner circle finds common ways to express morality (i.e., written or unwritten bylaws about how to behave). In the language of Spiral Dynamics, the inner circle needs a way to manifest their Blue.

The Outer Circle

In some ways, the outer circle is kind of like inner-circle light. That is, many of the same concepts apply, but the bonds and commitments are just not going to be as strong. In fact, many people in the outer circle may not want to make any commitment at all.

The set of people who constitute your outer circle can include friends, extended family, co-workers, clients, and neighbors. But just having a bunch of disconnected associates does not make a tribe. Of course, we can drift in and out of various (and often temporary) quasi-tribes. But a true outer circle has a distinct identity (i.e., a family or a company), and it is somewhat limited (i.e., ideally to about 50–150 people).

And ideally, the outer circle will include other inner circles that recognize themselves as such.

Obviously we are going to have a lot of social groups that don’t really meet these conditions, and that is okay. It is necessary. But what I am suggesting is that we make an attempt to unify some of our circles into a single true outer circle that has a distinct identity.

One way to do this is to form a partial economic union with other related inner circles. This can include making joint investments, having some kind of common economic safety net, or engaging members of the outer circle in a family company (or a family of family companies).

Okay, so that’s Tribal Dynamics in a nutshell. During that Spiral Dynamics podcast I linked to above they quoted someone as saying something like “you need to have a self in order to transcend the self.” One way to view this is that you need to develop your ego (Red) in order to find your place among something bigger than your self (i.e., the community). Tribal Dynamics is about the flip side of that. You need to find your tribe in order to self-actualize.




Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters