Patriotism gets a terrible rep in some circles. My desktop dictionary defines “patriot” as a “supporter of one’s own nation,” yet my thesaurus states “patriotism” can also refer to jingoism, chauvinism, nativism, and xenophobia.
Patriotism appears to go hand-in-hand with dehumanisation of outsiders and intolerance of internal criticism, especially during times of conflict.
But it isn’t the end of the narrative. Patriotism can also motivate people to self-sacrifice and compassion in the name of the motherland. Shared support for a country strengthens social ties and creates an environment where trust and cooperation can flourish.
As a result, patriotism helps us bond across national borders, but there’s a catch: it appears to limit our ability to see humanity in people from other countries.
That’s why national holidays like the Fourth of July always feel like a Gordian knot to me—and many other windmill-tilting idealists who want to promote peace and cross-group understanding—because we’re forced to choose between country and humanity.
Is this, however, always the case? Is it possible to celebrate July 4th without hating and fearing other countries? To the second question, the short answer is probably yes.
When the Greater Good Science Center looked at the results of its “connection to humanity” survey, we discovered that many respondents associated with both their country and mankind. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Indeed, the study literature so far reveals that the issue is not one of patriotism. Humans are wired to be in groups, but such groupings don’t have to be self-centered and confrontational.
New psychology research reveals how we can experience genuine patriotism for our country while remaining global citizens.
Why does patriotism exist?
Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, argues in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind that morality is derived from intuitions rather than reasoning, and that our intuitions are based on six foundations, which he defines as a series of binary opposites such as Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, and Authority/Subversion.
According to him, the political Left’s principles are based primarily on the foundations of Care and Fairness, whilst conservatives place a higher priority on Loyalty. As a result, “patriotism” becomes a unique feature of the Right.
To establish the Loyalty foundation, Haidt cites a classic 1954 experiment by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, in which two groups of 12-year-old boys were pitted against one another in an attempt to study how collective identities are formed.
The guys immediately formed tribal micro-cultures, destroying each other’s flags, raiding and vandalising each other’s bunks, calling each other horrible names, and making weapons.
According to Haidt, when morality is founded on Loyalty, the right is everything that strengthens and defends the tribe, while the wrong is anything that weakens it.
As a result, fighting against members of the opposing tribe is moral, whereas betraying one’s own tribe is the worst of all crimes.
That sounds awful to individuals whose morality is based on Care and Fairness, which is why conservatives demonise whistleblower Edward Snowden while many liberals celebrate him as a hero.
However, Haidt contends that the Loyalty foundation has deep evolutionary origins and therefore individuals who choose Care as a morality foundation cannot wish it away.
To survive and thrive, humans have always had to join together, and associating with some seems to imply excluding others.
This holds true all the way down to the neurochemical level. Because of its significance in forming bonds between people, oxytocin has been dubbed the “love hormone.”
However, it’s less generally understood that oxytocin is involved in the exclusion of others from that link. According to a 2011 study, oxytocin-treated Dutch students were “more likely to like Dutch persons or things connected with the Dutch than when they were given a placebo.”
They were also more inclined to declare “they would trade the life of a non-Dutch person over the life of a Dutch person to save five other people of unknown nationality.” We may also refer to oxytocin as the “patriotism hormone”!
This is only one example of how our bodies appear to be designed for social cohesion and loyalty, making traits like patriotism a difficult element of human psychology to overcome.
Even liberals and radicals who believe they are above tribal strife can be seen behaving in the same way as the 12-year-old boys in Muzafer Sherif’s experiment. I had no problem defacing the signs and flags of the campus’s “White Student Union” while I was an undergraduate student activist.
I still find that group’s agenda repulsive—and it’s worth mentioning that Haidt’s research into political difference arose from research into disgust—but I now recognise that my actions were guided by an unconscious, evolutionary script. I wasn’t advocating for a higher standard;
I was only making fun of the opposing team, mostly because I got a rush of dopamine from spray-painting “RASCISM SUX” on one of their banners.
My companions encouraged me; by performing an anti-social act of vandalism against another tribe, I was establishing relationships within my tribe.
Four paths to a more compassionate patriotism
While there are several dangers in teaching patriotism, the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum writes in her 2011 essay “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom” that we nevertheless “need patriotic passion to propel undertakings that require transcending self-interest.”
Just as a stable connection to one’s parents can serve as a model for successful relationships throughout one’s life, so can a safe attachment to one’s country give us the confidence to respect the countries of others.
Nussbaum looks back in American history for leaders who were able to foster a more compassionate, cosmopolitan patriotism, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued in 1967 that opposing war is the “privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties that are broader and deeper than nationalism and go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions.”
To make her case for a new kind of patriotism, Nussbaum draws on history and philosophy, but does her approach go against human nature, as some claim?
No, according to new psychology research, there are numerous things we can take to continue King’s legacy. Here are four to think about.
1. Make love of humanity an explicit goal.
Evolution gave us a brain that is designed for group bonding, which is why patriotism is such a double-edged sword, dividing “us” from “them.” And the brain is excellent at detecting variations in its surroundings, including racial distinctions.
We can’t help but go into high alert when we see something out of the norm or someone who isn’t like us, as the essays in the Greater Good collection Are We Born Racist? illustrate. Is this to say that prejudice and xenophobia will always exist?
No, because the human brain is capable of conquering fear and adjusting to change as well. Repeated exposure to diverse people and cultures, according to study after study, is beneficial.
In the fight against xenophobic nationalism, the brain has one more advantage: it is goal-oriented. “The brain can accomplish that, but it may take a little of effort and experience,” argues neuroscientist David Amodio in his Greater Good piece about overcoming racism, “The Egalitarian Brain.”
Although group formation and loyalty are natural and reinforced by our physiology, we are also well suited to overcome our fearful or prejudiced reactions. All we have to do now is offer ourselves opportunity to reflect on our biases—and commit to overcoming them.
2. Teach that compassion and empathy are unlimited resources.
The case for a narrow, self-interested patriotism begins with the notion that there is only so much positive feeling in the world—and that we must therefore ration it for those closest to us.
However, an increasing number of research show that this concept is erroneous. In his book “Can You Run Out of Empathy?” psychologist C. Daryl Cameron states, “I have found that the limitations of empathy are actually highly adjustable.”
People would restrict their empathy and compassion for the in-group if they are concerned that helping the out-group will be too costly or ineffectual, according to his research. However, he clarifies:
People’s expectations about empathy can have powerful effects on how much empathy they feel, and for whom. Identification with all humanity is an empirically documented individual difference that predicts more empathic emotion and behavior. And research with mindfulness interventions suggests that training people to approach, rather than avoid, their emotional experiences can decrease fear of empathy and increase pro-social behavior.
“Empathy, like oil, isn’t a non-renewable resource, according to the research so far.” Empathy is more like wind or solar electricity in that it is renewable and long-lasting.”
Knowing this to be true is one of the first stages toward extending one’s compassion beyond one’s personal circle to a larger swath of humanity.
3. Extend self-compassion to America.
As Americans, both liberals and conservatives might benefit from practising self-compassion.
As a group, liberals, progressives, and radicals in the United States are critical of our own country—I say “our” because I am one of them. We condemn our country’s past of slavery and bigotry, as well as the genocide of Native Americans, wartime crimes committed in our name, and illegal intelligence agency acts, among other things.
The most thoughtful and self-aware critics understand that we are harsh in part because we blame ourselves: we identify with our country, accept responsibility for its worst behaviours, and are embarrassed of it.
In my opinion, this is a valid expression of patriotism, but it can get in the way of taking good action to improve things.
Meanwhile, many rock-ribbed conservatives see any criticism of the United States as a personal attack on their self-esteem.
When their status is endangered, people who invest their self-worth in feeling superior and infallible become angry and defensive, according to University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff, who might be describing the Bush administration.
Self-compassion is Neff’s remedy to both of these psychological problems: “However, people who compassionately accept their flaws no longer need to participate in such destructive activities to defend themselves.”
As she writes in “Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem”:
As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.
For the Right, these are all characteristics that could contribute to the development of a kinder, softer, and less defensive patriotism.
For the Left, feelings of shame might lead us to judge ourselves and our compatriots severely without also acknowledging our country’s positive qualities—the principles and successes that inspire us to connect with one another and celebrate our common identity.
According to Neff and her colleagues’ research, self-compassion leads to greater compassion for others in both categories. You will be better equipped to recognise and alleviate suffering in others if you know how to do it for yourself.
Will self-compassion, on the other hand, stifle our desire to change and confront injustice? The research indicates that this is not the case. “We believe that if we make a mistake, we should punish ourselves so that we don’t repeat it,” says Neff. “
However, that is utterly ineffective. Depression is highly linked to self-criticism. And depression works against motivation: it’s impossible to be inspired to change when you’re depressed.
It makes us lose faith in ourselves, which makes us less willing to try to change and makes us more likely to fail.”
When we are compassionate with ourselves, on the other hand, we can admit when we have made a mistake and just endeavour to do better next time. That’s
4. Embrace authentic, not hubristic, pride.
Pride is a natural emotional response to achievement and social position, but certain types of pride are healthier than others.
Many recent research have demonstrated the drawbacks of “hubristic pride,” which is related with arrogance and self-aggrandizement, as defined by psychologists.
“Hubristic pride results from achievement that is attributed to internal, stable, and uncontrollable factors (‘I did well because I’m fantastic,’)” wrote Claire E. Ashton-James and Jessica L. Tracy in their 2011 research of how pride influences our feelings about other people.
Authentic pride, on the other hand, is related with sentiments of accomplishment and humility and is derived from success attributed to internal, unstable, and controllable reasons (‘I did well because I worked hard’).
Their research, as well as that of other GGSC-affiliated academics, has found a strong correlation between hubristic pride and bias, impulsivity, and aggressiveness. Authentic pride, on the other hand, promoted self-control, compassion for others, and good views toward out-groups.
According to Matt Goren and Victoria Plaut of UC Berkeley, the detrimental impacts of pride can be lessened if we are aware of the power and privilege that comes with our status.
So the task is clear: develop genuine, power-aware pride among American citizens. If we are proud of anything, it should be of the accomplishments of our fellow citizens and whatever efforts we have made, however tiny and local, to making our country and community a better place.
The pride of simply being born in the United States breeds arrogance, which breeds intolerance and belligerence. To be genuine, pride must be something we believe we have earned.
That distinction has always been established by the best American leaders. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy said in his inauguration address in 1961. But few seem to recall the following line:
“My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what we can do together for man’s freedom.”
These statements’ terrible Cold War background is almost lost on us now, but the greater principles underlying them are unmistakable. Kennedy portrayed himself as a patriot of the United States as well as a global citizen, with no apparent contradiction.
These words are, at root, an appeal for authentic pride—citizenship as something that must be earned, in a nation that is part of a community of nations. Those are ideals worth celebrating.