Priming National Identity: Small Things Can Have a Big Impact

Reminding people of their national identity can create unity.

Posted Jan 21, 2011


A sense of unity can happen after a tragedy.

For a little while after the tragic shooting of 19 people in Tucson in early January including Rep. Gabriele Giffords there was increased sense of national unity. Forget the politicians and pundits, who all looked for some political advantage in the situation. Americans had a sudden distaste for the polarization in politics

It was almost as if this horrible event reminded us that we are members of a group bigger than ourselves.  It reminded us that even though we may disagree with some of our fellow citizens about some aspects of politics, we also agree on a lot of national ideals.  It gave us a chance to focus on those commonalities. 

In this context, I was reminded of a 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Ran Hassin, Melissa Ferguson, Daniella Shidlovsky, and Tamar Gross. 

Israeli flag

Flag like the one used in the experiments.

These authors explored the effects of increasing the strength of someone's national identity without their awareness. The participants in their study were citizens of Israel. Like the US, there is a lot of polarization in Israeli politics with a deep divide among people over issues of border security and the creation of a Palestinian state.  Using a scale to allow people to rate their political beliefs, these authors found that many of the participants in their studies had strong beliefs either on the left or right of the political spectrum.

 As an experimental manipulation, all participants saw a series of 60 images flashed quickly and were asked whether the image appeared at the top or the bottom half of the computer screen. The image was flashed for a 60th of a second, which is too fast for the picture to be recognized. For half the participants, the image was an Israeli flag, and for the other half it was a picture of an Israeli flag all scrambled so that it would not be obvious what it was even if it were seen for an extended period of time. After seeing these images, people filled out a scale to rate their political beliefs. The idea was that seeing the Israeli flag would prime people's national identity, and that should moderate their political feelings.

The results were consistent with this proposal. The people who saw the scrambled flag tended to show extreme and polarized beliefs. In contrast, those people who were primed with the Israeli flag tended to show beliefs more in the middle of the political spectrum.  The idea here is that seeing the flag reminded people of their national identity (without their awareness) and that influenced the beliefs they expressed.

Of course, the effects of this kind of exposure (what psychologists call priming) are short-lived.  However, depending on what you do following this exposure, the influence of the priming can have a long-term effect.

To demonstrate this point, the authors did a second study in the months before a national election.  Again, some participants were primed with an Israeli flag, while others saw the scrambled flag.  Immediately after doing this pre-task, people were asked to rate which party they intended to vote for. After the election, the participants were contacted again to find out who they did vote for. 

In this study, the participants who saw the scrambled flag were more polarized in their expressions of who they were going to vote for than those who saw the Israeli flag. That is, priming people's national identity made them express stronger commitment to the left or the right.  

Of particular interest, a similar pattern was observed in actual voting behavior. People who saw the scrambled flags who were generally supportive of the political right voted strongly for candidates who supported their positions. People who were supportive of the left voted strongly for candidates who supported their positions. Those people who saw the Israeli flags, though, voted more moderately. 

Seeing the flags did not influence people's voting behavior directly. Instead, other statistical analyses in this paper suggest that seeing the flags affected the intentions people expressed about voting. The intentions that people gave influenced their later voting behavior. So, even a small manipulation (like seeing a bunch of flags) can affect real-world behavior under the right circumstances. 

These results also highlight that increasing feelings of national identity can influence whether people see themselves as similar to other people in their country. In times of polarization, a little national unity can be helpful. 

 Follow me on Twitter.