The Creepy Psychological Power of the American Flag

Old Glory makes you nationalist, not patriotic.


Here’s a fact to keep in mind as Fourth of July decorations go up this year: Americans don’t love America more around American flags — but they do snub other countries, indulging in some violent thoughts along the way.

A series of psychological studies conducted in 1998 and 2004 (notably before and after the 9/11 attacks) found that Americans exposed to the American flag tend to become more nationalist — they tend to support the idea that America is superior to other countries. It’s not that looking at a flag makes Americans more patriotic so much as reminding the onlooker of American power and dominance.

The research method here is straightforward, but also limited in some important ways: 127 college students complete detailed, well-established psychological questionnaires designed to measure patriotism, authoritarianism, and other traits. Make sure half of them complete the study in view of the stars and bars, and half without seeing them.

Again and again, students who were sitting in a room with an American flag offered more nationalist responses: The United States is better than others, more powerful, militarily victorious, superior in technology. Men turned out to be more susceptible to the effect than women, while women turned out to be more generally patriotic — the flag didn’t shift their patriotism. The authors note that their sample size was too limited to tease out major differences between racial groups, and of course the fact that all the subjects were college-age was a limiting factor.

All this suggests the American flag has the power to be a dangerous symbol, the authors write, motivating Americans toward a kind of us-versus-them thinking and national arrogance that can be the first step in gearing people up for violence.

“It appears,” the authors write, “that self-described patriotism does not guard against a potentially more perilous nationalism lurking underneath.”

Abstract: The American flag is a frequently displayed national symbol in the United States. Given its high visibility and importance, the present research examines the consequences of exposure to the flag on Americans’ sense of national attachment. We hypothesized that the flag would increase patriotism, defined as love and commitment to one’s country, and nationalism, defined as a sense of superiority over others. Two experimental studies supported the idea that the American flag increased nationalism, but not necessarily patriotism. The discussion focuses on the practices surrounding the American flag and its implications for the reproduction of American national identity.
Related Tags