The Everyday Psychology of Nationalism

South Koreans were enraged when their countrywoman lost to a Russian competitor at the Sochi Olympics. That reaction may or may not have been right, but it was perfectly healthy.

Kim Yuna with the South Korean flag after winning second place in women's figure skating at the Sochi Olympics (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

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 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.

“If my country is small and I have bad neighbors, and therefore I feel I have to be vigilant all the time, the idea of being small, threatened, and vigilant should translate into other areas of life, such as sports,” Druckman says. A country that might feel weak and unable to defend itself, like South Korea—with its nationalist grievances related to a series of invasions from Japan and China, the Japanese occupation through World War II, the war and continuing conflict with North Korea—will react instinctively to perceived slights or unfairness in athletics as well. “I think the vociferousness of the reaction relates back to a feeling of some kind of cultural inferiority,” Druckman adds. “The situational, contextual roots of insecurity lead to extreme patriotic identification as well.”

Though nationalism is a global phenomenon, the forms it takes can be very local. For example, “a member of a small and disenfranchised minority will likely experience nationalism differently than will a member of a majority group in a powerful country,” Searle-White notes in his book.

In the years since South Korea’s last Winter Olympic outrage—Kim Dong Sung’s speed skating loss in 2002—the country has grown in many ways. Samsung, once a smaller South Korean producer, became the world’s largest electronics company by revenue, outselling Apple in smartphones. Seoul was crowned an it travel destination, and Gangnam became a household name. And, of course, there was Kim Yuna’s Olympic win in Vancouver 2010. In some ways, South Korea’s overpowering nationalism has lessened, as noted in The New York Times:

“South Koreans often treated sports as an avenue to affirm the national pride they desperately wanted … Chung Hee-joon, a professor of sports science at Dong-A University, attributed the change in part to recent self-reflection on an excessive nationalism in South Korean sports and other areas that critics liken to methamphetamine.

‘Nothing elevated the superiority of being Korean and Korean blood abroad more than sports,’ he said.”

Given all the negatives, it may seem counterintuitive that there can be positive mental and emotional benefits to national loyalty. But, as Searle-White writes, “nationalism is not inherently evil; indeed, devotion to a nation can bring out transcendent qualities in people, facilitating selflessness, courage, and idealism.” It’s not far-fetched to imagine that South Koreans’ loyalty and love for their country helped them make the many cultural and economic advancements they now take pride in.

According to Druckman, there are several theoretical benefits to nationalism—including the idea that group loyalty bolsters self-esteem and that the more loyal one is, the more pride one gains.

“There’s nothing quite so psychologically satisfying as the feeling of belonging to a group,” Searle-White explains. “Nationalism can be remarkably unifying, and unlike class or some versions of religious identity, it can do it across gender, class, and political lines.”

In the case of South Korea and its recent Olympic wound, many will never forgive the perceived injustice of Kim Yuna’s loss in Sochi; some may seek retribution in four years when the 2018 Winter Olympics begin in Pyeongchang. Others are now embarrassed by their compatriots’ zeal. But the country’s unity is still apparent if you look at the way South Koreans rallied behind their Olympic star. “She gave a gift to all of us by showing that there was nothing impossible,” the daily Chosun newspaper said in an editorial, as reported by The New York Times. “Yuna elevated the national prestige.”