What the World Cup Taught Me About Nationalism

Powerful emotions motivate us for collective action but can also be manipulated.

Posted Jul 21, 2018

 Scott Wagner
Researchers, fellows, and staff at the Santa Fe Institute gather in an office to watch the World Cup.
Source: Scott Wagner

The other day, my coworkers and I crammed around a TV to watch Croatia and England face off in the World Cup. As distant figures expertly shuffled the ball across the green and fans cheered, a strange split occurred in me. Here I was, a supposedly rational scientist raised in the secular and cosmopolitan spirit of Yugoslavian schools that frowned upon nationalistic expression. I loftily think of myself as a human being that transcends nations and tribes.

And yet, even though I can hardly tell when a player is "offside," the success of Croatian soccer team became the absolute priority for me during those two hours. I was awash in powerful emotions that made me cheer, cry, and feel like one with my 4.2 million compatriots watching the same game across the pond. If the Croatian president asked me to help my little nation in any way she thought appropriate, I would have risen on my feet and done it, forgetting any qualms I might have had about her politics.

What happened? The common “enemy”, England, made my Croatian identity very salient to me. We know from research on radicalization1,2 that the perceived or real threats we experience shape our group identity. When I witness gender stereotyping, I feel like a member of women’s tribe. When I listen to climate change denialists, I remember that am in the scientists’ tribe. When I stand in the line for non-US citizens at an entry airport, I am reminded that I belong to the sci-fi-sounding group “nonresident aliens.” 

Watching the match, I not only felt Croatian, it was clear that “my” group was under immediate threat. After all, those English players tried really hard to block our rightfully deserved place in the World Cup finals! And their fans were just obnoxious, singing their anthem over and over again! Powerful emotional mechanisms shaped through millennia of intergroup conflict kicked in. After all, we are all descendants of groups that won rather than lost their battles with other groups.4 Feeling joy when our group is winning, and sadness when it is in danger, are almost automatic reactions, independent of reasoning.

These powerful feelings can motivate groups to collectively do wonderful things – from constructing immense buildings and tall bridges to solving difficult scientific and societal problems. The feelings can also be manipulated. Less scrupulous politicians and other peddlers of various ideas and products are quite good at this. A strategy that often works is to introduce an “enemy” to induce a common identity among their diverse followers and motivate them to act. It doesn’t really matter who the enemy is, but the best ones are often constructed on deep foundations of old national, religious, racial, gender, and class divisions. 

When we identify as members of a threatened group, we are prone to prejudice towards outside groups, policing of different opinions in our own group, and following our leaders without question. We also tend to reject any information that is not from “trusted” sources. Rational thinking and education doesn’t help. The more educated we are the better we are at cherry-picking arguments that serve our own group.5,6 

Croatia won the game but lost in the World Cup finals. The nation mourned briefly, but then half a million people put on a tremendous display of national pride, cheering the players when they returned home. A few days later, group emotions had evaporated and now we’re back to 4.2 million individuals who squabble about various political and cultural disagreements. And while not very emotionally pleasant, such disagreements are as important for a society as are occasional happy moments of blind unity. 


1. Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Faith, brotherhood, and the (un)making of terrorists. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

2. Sageman, M. (2016). Misunderstanding terrorism. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

3. Bowles, S. (2009). Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors? Science, 324, 1293-1298.

4. Drummond, C., & Fischhoff, B. (2017). Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114, 9587-9592.

5. Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732-735.