NEW YORK — “Patriots” are more likely to wear face masks and stick to lockdown rules during the coronavirus pandemic, a new study contends. Researchers at New York University say their analysis of the attitudes of people in 67 countries reveals that those who identify more strongly with their nation actively participate in public health measures and support restrictive policies.
The team also found that patriotic people are more likely to wear masks and practice social distancing. The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that national identities play a “significant” and “positive” role in battling a global pandemic.
“History has undoubtedly shown that nationalism can be a destructive force,” says study co-author Professor Jay Van Bavel in a university release. “But research has also revealed that there is a pro-social side to group identity. This study points to a new and promising possibility—that national identity can be useful in effectively addressing the current pandemic and may serve as a public health resource in the future.”
“We see the positive effects, especially for those who feel genuinely proud and close to their nation, rather than those who are mostly concerned about how others see their country,” adds co-author Dr. Aleksandra Cichocka, director of the political psychology lab at the University of Kent.
“National Identity as measured reflects what it means to be part of a nation for each person,” explains co-author Dr. Paulo Sérgio Boggio of Brazil’s Mackenzie Presbyterian University. “Valuing this can foster the collective feeling of the population in the fight against COVID. In real life, this can be seen in countries like New Zealand, whose Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardem, has emphasized each one’s role as a member of a larger group that is the country itself.”
Separating national identification from national narcissism
The international team says they recognized the productive role national identity might play in responding to a widespread crisis — in this case, the coronavirus pandemic.
While COVID’s impact has been global, policies and calls for practices to address it largely only apply to individual countries, raising the question of the role national identity plays in responding to national public health measures.
The researchers aimed to separate national identity — which gauges how strongly people identify with their country — from national narcissism, which is a form of social identity that involves the belief that a person’s country is exceptional but underappreciated by others.
Previous studies have found that national identification tends to correlate with national narcissism because they both involve a positive evaluation of one’s nation. However, the researchers note each one leads to very different outcomes.
For example, prejudice against “outgroups” — those seen as different — has a negative association with national identification, but a positive one with national narcissism.
Right-wing political beliefs still oppose restrictive policies
The team conducted a survey involving nearly 50,000 participants across 67 countries, asking the extent to which people reported adopting public health behaviors (like social distancing) and endorsed public policy measures. This includes shutting down bars and restaurants during the early stage of the pandemic in April and May 2020.
The team also asked about the participants’ political ideology — left-wing or right-wing leanings — and included questions aimed at capturing national identification and national narcissism.
Overall and across all countries, participants who reported identifying more strongly with their nation consistently reported greater engagement in public health behaviors and support for public health policies. Study authors add that, unlike left-wing ideology, right-wing political ideology had a “positive, moderate correlation” with both national identification and national narcissism, but “very weak” correlations with support for public health measures.
Researchers believe that suggests that political ideology may be relatively unimportant for predicting public health behavior outside the United States. However, they found one exception in that right-wing political beliefs, across several countries, had a connection to less support for COVID-19 public health government policies compared to left-wing political beliefs.
“It is important to note that the relationship between national identity and public health support was distinct from national narcissism,” Prof. Van Bavel says.
“In past research, national narcissism has predominantly been linked to problematic attitudes towards both out-group and in-group members. However, we found that national narcissism was positively associated with self-reported physical hygiene and support for COVID-19 preventative policies. Still, these effects were much smaller than those for national identity.”
Do patriotic people really practice what they preach?
To better understand if self-reporting actually matched the actions people took, the team conducted a second international study. They examined whether countries with higher average national identification prior to the pandemic predicted a stronger reduction in mobility after the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world during April and May 2020.
Prof. Van Bavel reports that national identification did have a link to reduced spatial mobility. This suggests that those with a strong national identity did indeed follow public health guidelines by reducing their movements and reducing physical interactions with others.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.