What proportion of world history is the United Kingdom responsible for? While it’s clearly hard to put an exact number on it, you might be surprised by the answers participants gave in a 2018 study: on average, Brits believed that the country has contributed a whopping 55% of the total history of the world. And they weren’t alone: participants from 34 other countries all rated their own nations as having outsized contributions, from 11% in Switzerland to 61% in Russia.
Other work has found that people make similar claims about the regions they live in: one study found that Americans believe their own state is responsible for 18% of the nation’s history, despite just being one of 50 in the country. Now a series of studies in Memory & Cognition has looked at exactly why people make these judgements, known as “collective overclaiming”.
In the new paper, Morgan Quinn Ross at The Ohio State University and colleagues studied the phenomenon through the lens of support theory. Simply put, this theory states that the way an event is described influences how likely we believe it is to occur. In particular, if an event is “unpacked” into its constituent parts, we generally see it as more likely. For instance, people believe that a plane crash is more likely when they think about the possible causes of plane crashes — human failure, terrorism, and so on — than when they just think about the likelihood of a plane crash in general.
Across a series of five studies, the team examined whether a similar kind of bias could account for our tendency to overclaim the contributions of a particular region. In the first, 302 participants read about a fictitious country, Oloram, and were asked how much the territory Adivigan was responsible for the historical developments of the country. Crucially, participants either learned that there were a total of 5, 20, or 50 territories, of which Adivigan was just one, and were told to keep in mind that the total contribution of all territories should equal 100%.
Without any other information to go on, it would seem to make sense simply to estimate the contribution of Adivigan as a proportion of the total number of territories (i.e. 20% for the 5 territory condition or 2% for the 50 territory condition). And in the 5 territory condition, participants weren’t far off: on average they estimated that Adivigan was responsible for 23% of the country’s history. But participants considerably overestimated the contribution for the 20 and 50 territory conditions (average responses were 16% and 12% respectively, while the mathematically correct responses would be 5% and 2%).
This study showed that the extent of overclaiming increased when there were more territories. The researchers suggest that this may be because with people’s focus concentrated on Adivigan, they tend to lump all the other regions together, rather than considering them as many individual territories (i.e. they don’t “unpack” them, in the language of support theory). This means people are prone to underestimate the role of these other regions — particularly when there are more of them.
To test this idea further, the team asked a separate set of participants to complete a similar task, except this time they all read that Oloram had 5 territories. Some participants again rated the contribution of just one region, while the others rated all five. As expected, when the participants had to “unpack” the scenario by rating all of the territories, they were spot on, rating the contribution of each as 20%. But when they rated just one of the territories, they again overestimated its contribution at 39%.
In a later study, the team looked at whether the amount of information given to participants influenced their judgements. In the “minimal content” condition, they simply read that Adivigan was one of Oloram’s 20 territories; in the “content” condition they were given facts about the territory (e.g. that it has prominent shipping and trade industries and boasts a popular forest); and in the “detailed content” condition they read more detailed information (e.g. that it has more than 30 financial institutions and several rare tree species).
In all conditions, participants once again overestimated Adivigan’s contributions to the history of the country. But participants who received more information overestimated these contributions the most: those in the detailed content condition rated the contribution at 36%, compared to 14% in the minimal content condition.
Overall, the results suggest that our tendency to overclaim may at least partly be the result of cognitive biases: we overestimate the contributions of the region that is most salient to us or that we know most about — whether that is Adivigan or the UK. And while in the real world there’s probably an element of nationalism at play as well, the fact that these biases were seen even for fictitious territories suggests that that can’t be the sole explanation.
Most importantly, the findings also suggest a way to overcome this bias: by “unpacking” all the other alternative regions, rather than considering them as one entity. So, suggest the authors, learning about the history of other countries could help reduce the “inflated perceptions” you might hold about your own nation.