Born in the USA

The Evolutionary Psychology of Patriotism

Posted Jun 27, 2015

I am proud that I was born in the USA. I cried during 9/11 and felt surprisingly patriotic immediately thereafter. I think New York City is the greatest city in the history of the world. I love grilling hamburgers and hot dogs - and I make a sick apple pie. And each year on the fourth of July, our family gets together with a huge group of friends for a mammoth fourth-of-July party with a backyard pool and an arsenal of items that were made in China. I am an American and am proud of it!

Given the number of holiday travelers and the numbers of others who purchase special Chinese products in places like Pennsylvania border towns this time of year, I know I’m not the only one.

Why? Why does patriotism exist? Why do we identify so strongly with certain group affiliations? Think about it – if you’re like me, it’s not just your nation that you identify with so strongly. For me, I identify strongly as an alum of the University of Connecticut (Huskies!!!). I identify strongly with the fact that I grew up in North Jersey (which, by the way, is what the natives call that place otherwise known as ​"northern New Jersey"). I identify with my current academic institution, SUNY New Paltz (Orange and Blue Forever!), and so forth.

The Power of Ingroup/Outgroup Reasoning

            Some of the greatest research in social psychology has documented strongly that ingroup/outgroup reasoning is a foundational feature of human social psychology (see Billig & Tajfel, 1973). People form, in their minds, groups of folks who are “in their ingroup” (you went to UCONN? Me too!!!) versus those who are in an outgroup (oh, you went to Duke? – I think I have to get some punch – excuse me …).

            In his novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut (1963) famously created the term “granfalloon” – an artificially created, empty group quality that we use to identify others as “with us” or “on our team." In Cat’s Cradle, some of the characters who are initially strangers to one another become quite close simply because they all come from Indiana – now that’s a granfalloon!  

The Coalitional Ape

            Why do modern humans have such a strong tendency to form group affiliations based on such silly criteria as the college they went to or the TV shows that they watch? Hint: We are the coalitional ape (see Bingham & Souza, 2009). In an exemplary bit of scholarship, Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza make a strong case that the core feature of what makes us human – of what makes us stand apart – is our tendency to form large groups that extend beyond kin lines. Neanderthals never did this – to their demise (see Geher, 2015). Modern humans, and our Homo Sapien ancestors, have been in the business of forming coalitions separate from kin lines for thousands of generations.

Religious groups, for instance, are often very large – and they come with very strong group-affiliation features (see Wilson, 2002 and Geher, 2014). People often see their religious affiliation as the core part of their identities. And the evolutionary benefit is this: Being part of a strong coalition has huge benefits to you and your family. Ancestral individuals who had a coalitional mindset and who were good at forming coalitions were people who had advantages in terms of having their family members and themselves survive and reproduce. We are a coalitional ape. And this fact is largely rooted in our ingroup/outgroup-based psychology.

Red Sox Nation

When Winegard and Deaner (2010) published the now-classic article with the phrase “Red Sox Nation” in the title, the only scholarly mistake they made, from the perspective of a New Yorker, was that they accidentally replaced “Yankees” with “Red Sox.” … Be that as it may, their research on sports fandom shows how being a sports fan is ultimately a reflection of our ancestral coalitional psychology at work. Being a fan of a team that is successful trickles down to fans – who have a natural ingroup that can be easily identified.

Being an alumnus of UCONN, with a proud basketball tradition, I tend to shout out “Go UCONN!” to people wearing UCONN hats or shirts – pretty much anywhere. Florida. California. Europe. They’re still Huskies. And they usually smile and sometimes do a small fist-pump! We’re part of the same granfalloon!

Recap

Why do we affiliate so strongly with groups that we belong to? Because doing so, for better or worse, is a strongly embedded part of human evolved coalitional psychology. Is blind support of one’s nation, religion, or sports team always good? No – definitely not! And we can think of lots of examples on this front.

Be that as it may, the 4th of July is coming up. Are you an American? Then do what I do. Put on cheesy temporary American Flag tattoos. Grill hundreds of dollars of meat while having your beverage of choice. Buy and utilize items made in China and purchased on the fringes of Pennsylvania. And remember the fact that while the USA may not be perfect, in the minds of folks like me, it’s the best nation there ever has been. USA! USA! USA! USA!

References

Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.

Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G. (2015). Why are there more Homo Sapiens than Neanderthals These Days? Psychology Today Blog. 

Vonnegut, K. (1963). Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell.

Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winegard, B., & Deaner, R. O. (2010). The evolutionary significance of Red Sox Nation: Sport fandom as a by-product of coalitional psychology. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 432–446.