It was a good old-fashioned Olympic scandal in Sochi, when South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna lost to a less experienced Russian. The judgment spurred millions of angry Tweets, and a Change.org petition protesting the result was the site’s fastest growing record—reportedly more than 1.2 million signatures in about 12 hours.
Skating officials and fans around the world have questioned the decision, but critics remain focused on the South Korean outrage, largely since their sports fanaticism has made headlines before. Diehard citizens of countries like South Korea may seem odd to some; a post on Yahoo had the misguided headline: “Deal with it, South Korea.” But this injunction didn’t really understand the nature and depth of nationalist feeling—and the extent to which a sentiment often associated with extremism, even war, can be pervasive in the psychology of everyday life, including in sports fandom.
The ideology of nationalism has a complex history, originating in early-modern Europe and evolving in myriad ways as it's spread throughout the world. Today nationalism can be civic, ethnic, or a combination of the two, but all nationalists “carry strong attitudes and beliefs about their own people and about others, who feel their attachment to their nation passionately, and who even, at times, act with great cruelty against their enemies,” according to Joshua Searle-White in his book The Psychology of Nationalism. This us-versus-them mentality and its negative effects have been well examined from a political and historical standpoint, but surprisingly few have studied its psychological roots. From a social-psychological perspective, nationalist sentiment is thought to stem from two main points: attachment and identity.
Basic cognitive development theories, like those of Jean Piaget, suggest that children undergo a socialization process that moves from the egocentric to the sociocentric, as they build attachments to groups to fulfill their basic human needs. According to an essay by Daniel Druckman, “At the level of the nation, the group fulfills economic, sociocultural, and political needs, giving individuals a sense of security, a feeling of belonging, and prestige.” Numerous theories from psychologists like Freud and Maslow agree that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation; national attachment can fulfill that need and help individuals construct their identity.
Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory suggests that a person’s identity is based in part on his or her group, so a group’s status and importance affects the individual’s own. In other words, you want to view your nation as being superior to others to increase your own self-esteem, creating “in-group favoritism” and “out-group devaluation” (xample: the classic “U! S! A!” chant).
“I would argue that we human beings have a constant need to improve our sense of ourselves. The easiest way to do that is to compare ourselves to others—and see ‘us’ as better than ‘them’,” says Searle-White, a professor of psychology at Allegheny College. Yet some countries seem to inspire more group loyalty than others. There are many theories, none concrete, for why this is, but it seems to depend on historical, cultural, and situational context.
Some psychologists theorize that a nation’s size and military power, as well as past military conflicts, have the greatest effect on nationalistic tendency. Druckman, a professor at George Mason University and a scholar at Macquarie University in Sydney, suggests that people in smaller countries who feel threatened by neighbors and are less well-equipped to handle attacks are more prone to nationalism. The constant threats and feelings of insecurity at a national level seep down to the individual—is my country strong enough?—and since people draw self-esteem and status from their country, a common reaction is to lash out against feelings of inferiority by displaying a sense of superiority.
In South Korea as elsewhere, group loyalty plays out not just in global politics but, even particularly, in global competitions that incite strong personal feelings, as in sports.