This week I got a new laptop. It’s very zingy, extremely thin and is so razor thin I’m afraid I might cut my fingers when I open it. This isn’t a blog entry about the joy of the new, however, it’s about tribes and tribalism. So, in the interests of full disclosure: my new laptop runs Windows. This turns out to be surprisingly important.

Being a scientist and card-carrying geek, things like what operating system your laptop uses and who manufactured it take on a disproportionate importance. In the lab I work in there’s a definite divide between those who use Macs and those who don’t, with some surprisingly strong feeling on both sides and before long a certain amount of joshing was inevitable.

Picture the scene: There’s me at my desk with new laptop looking pleased with myself, up comes an Apple-fan friend of mine. That’s new. Yes it is. Why did you choose that one? It’s thin and light. It’s not as light as my mac. No, but it’s thinner, got a bigger screen, a faster processor, and Bang&Olufson speakers.

And now my friend plays their trump card.

But it’s running Windows!

Gah! Defeated! I can’t stand Macs, I call as my friend vanishes back to their office.

And this little incident got me thinking: tribes. We fall so easily into little entrenched tribal groups. I’m every bit as guilty here as my friend, she likes Apple, I don’t. It’s all very good-natured, but it’s just the same as supporters of different football teams (disclaimer: I’m not for a moment saying that isn’t good-natured too!), drivers of different cars or natives of different villages.

In the end, this tribalism is part of being human. We look to support those close to us and undermine those who aren’t.  It’s something that shows up time and time again is different aspects of human behaviour: support those who are aligned to you, undermine those who aren’t. It applies on different scales, from tiny groups within families or offices up through loyalties to brands and national identity, and presumably would express itself in some way were we ever to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials, a theme I’m not sure has ever been meaningfully explored in Science Fiction.

This tendency is also easy to manipulate, and is the reason that branding works as well as it does: convince people to identify with what you’re selling by giving it a symbols and associating something aspirational to it and bingo: loyal consumer base who are suddenly tapping into a very primal force when buying your products.

The day after my thorough taunting at the hands of Apple fan A, I bumped into Apple fan B – Apple fan B is by far the most enthusiastic supporter of the brand I have ever met (which is saying something – Apple customers tend to be very vocal in their support).

I duly braced myself for more cold derision but in act was pleasantly surprised. In fact, he paid me a very high compliment: Is that your new laptop? Yup, that’s the one.

Cool, he said — it looks like a Mac.

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