By guest blogger Jesse Singal
How important is your country, really? It’s a pointed question, especially with Brexit looming and the reinvigoration of nationalistic movements in the U.S. and EU. So it feels like a fitting time to look at a creative study that evaluated differences in, well, national self-importance.
In “We Made History: Citizens of 35 Countries Overestimate Their Nation’s Role in World History”, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, a team led by Franklin M. Zaromb of Israel’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education surveyed thousands of students across the world to better gauge their beliefs about world history and their countries’ place in it. (You can view the survey itself here.)
A subset of the students — 6,185 from 35 countries once fishy and incomplete responses were excluded — were asked “What contribution do you think the country you are living in has made to world history?” They were instructed to respond with a percentage from 0 to 100. (“Participants were all citizens of their respective countries,” the authors note — no exchange students here.)
As Zaromb’s team acknowledge, this is a somewhat odd question. There is of course no way to assign a percentage of history-making to a given country in anything like an objective or rigorous way (how many Singing Revolutions equals one Pearl Harbour?). But that was sort of the point: The goal of the survey was to better understand students’ potential feelings of “collective narcissism” or “the phenomenon of people showing excessive pride in one’s own group”, as well as the biases that go into making numerically noisy judgements.
One could be forgiven for imagining that my fellow Americans, more than the citizens of other nations, would be the ones to view their country as the most historically important. After all, the concept of “American exceptionalism” is pretty baked into U.S. culture. But as it turned out, Americans were in the bottom half — on average, those students, who were from Washington University in St. Louis, estimated that their country contributed 29.6 per cent of world history. That’s of course a ridiculous overestimate — especially given that the U.S., having been founded as an independent nation in 1776, has only been around for a tiny fraction of human history — but 29.6 per cent was a positively humble estimate relative to those made by students from the countries with the three highest average estimates: Russia (60.8 per cent), the U.K. (54.6 per cent), and India (53.9 per cent). The three humblest (relatively speaking) countries were Switzerland (11.3 per cent), Norway (12.3 per cent), and New Zealand (17.7 per cent). By any conceivably reasonable standard, of course, these are all overestimates. The researchers dubbed this apparently universal (at least among these samples) tendency to overrate the historical importance of one’s country’s national narcissism.
The researchers also asked the respondents questions geared at measuring their levels of national pride and loyalty to see how that was related to their level of national narcissism. And while there was a statistically significant correlation between the two, it wasn’t all that large (r = .2, meaning national pride/loyalty could explain 4 per cent of the variance in the estimates of national narcissism), and it was quite heterogeneous: For many countries it was significantly larger or smaller than r = .2, or wasn’t statistically significant at all (for what it’s worth, there was no country where the correlation was both negative and significant).
While the findings here are certainly interesting, there are many limitations to keep in mind. These aren’t true national averages, for one thing, since the samples, all drawn from a single university per country, are quite susceptible to selection bias: In the U.S., for example, Washington University in St. Louis is a highly ranked school known for having a fairly wealthy student body. Students there might have a very different view about America’s contributions to history than what one might find surveying a different slice of Americans (in case you’re wondering, the U.K. sample attended Brunel University, London). The study’s entire sample also skewed rather female (60.2 per cent), for what that’s worth.
But it’s still interesting that students from 35 nations calculated that their nations were, in sum, responsible for 1,156.4 per cent of human history. What can this tell us?
A couple of things, potentially. As Zaromb and his colleagues point out, this could be seen as an example of the availability heuristic — a cognitive error in which we overestimate certain things because we can so easily call examples to mind. In this case, the respondents, being students, were likely able to come up with many examples of historically important things that involved their country — Norwegian students learn Norwegian history, after all — and as a result overestimated the historical importance of their homelands. Now, as the authors note, the question about percentages did come near the end of a longer survey in which respondents were also “asked about their knowledge of important historical figures and events from around the world”, based on a “list of 40 people and events [that were] distributed throughout the world, with no one country dominant”. In theory, this might have reduced the impact of the availability heuristic, since it would prime respondents to think of events in other countries. But by that same token, citizens of the biggest countries saw their countries over-represented on that list. By my count, for example, 10 of the 20 events directly involved the U.S. For an American student, then, the list could run the risk of actually exacerbating the availability heuristic, since it contains so many examples of historical events that directly involved the U.S. (A Swiss or Norwegian student, on the other hand, wouldn’t be similarly primed, though perhaps being exposed to many historical events could cause them to think about their countries’ responses to those events.)
This study could also be seen as evidence for a cousin of the famous Lake Wobegon effect, or the tendency of people to overestimate their abilities, leading a majority of individuals to view themselves as “above average” in various domains. It shouldn’t be surprising, given what we know about in-group psychology, that people often err similarly when evaluating their own groups relative to others.
It would be fascinating to see a study like this repeated on a larger, more cross-nationally representative group of respondents. One could make a case for more highly educated people both overestimating or underestimating their countries’ historical importance, relative to less educated ones (maybe the highly educated, knowing more history, are hit harder by the availability heuristic — or maybe they’re simply better with numbers, so the less educated would make even higher estimates).
As of now, the researchers admit they aren’t quite sure why they found what they found. “None of our measures accounted for much of the variance [in national narcissism], nor were estimates especially inflated in individualistic societies compared to collectivistic societies… National narcissism was higher in materialistic, more collectivistic and hierarchical cultures, but explained variance was small.” There’s a lot more work to be done to better understand this phenomenon, in other words, and the first step will be to harvest data from bigger, more nationally representative samples.
(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.