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Why the American Flag Inspires Superiority Not Patriotism

Research shows that seeing the flag doesn't make Americans feel more patriotic, but instead, more nationalistic and more superior to non-Americans.
 
 
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This story appeared first on Miller-McCune.com.

Early in the presidential campaign that was, Barack Obama's initial reluctance to wear a flag pin caused some opponents to question his patriotism. After all, some conservatives argued, the flag is the quintessential symbol of American patriotism, and by not wearing it on his lapel, well, one could only assume ...

But are the stars and stripes as much a symbol of patriotism as many make them out to be? Probably not, according to some new research on the effects of exposure to the American flag. Experiments conducted by Markus Kemmelmeier, a professor of social psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, and colleagues show that gazing upon the red, white and blue actually does very little to stoke feelings of patriotism.

But it does make people more individualistic, more materialistic and -- perhaps most troublingly -- more nationalistic.

Researchers tend to define patriotism as love of one 's country; nationalism, on the other hand, tends to measure feelings of superiority. "Nationalism takes into consideration that there are others and that your own country is not just only loveable but also different and better than others, " Kemmelmeier explained.

Originally from Germany, Kemmelmeier said he was struck by the omnipresence of the American flag when he arrived in the United States in 1994. "Every plumber has one on his plumbing uniform; churches even have flags in them, " he said. "This is strange to people in other countries.

Ten years ago, Kemmelmeier and colleagues at the University of Michigan (where he was then getting his Ph.D. in social psychology) were trying to prime feelings of patriotism by showing people the American flag, testing the conventional wisdom that the flag made people more patriotic. But try as they might, the only feelings they were able to elicit by showing people the flag were feelings of national superiority (i.e., nationalism).

The nationalism-eliciting findings are published in the October issue of Political Psychology in an article Kemmelmeier co-authored with David G. Winter, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. The study describes two specific experiments, one in which undergraduates responded to a survey with and without a large American flag in the room and one in which undergraduates responded to a questionnaire with and without three American flags printed on the paper.

In both cases, according to the article, "the flag not only prompted participants to think about their own country as superior to and dominant in the world, but also induced a mode of hierarchical thinking as evidence in elevated group-dominance scores. " In other words, according to Kemmelmeier, the flag makes people think that some people and some countries are better than others, a mode of thinking, he said, that makes people "feel more entitled to express prejudice.

The paper also notes that "nationalism has been implicated in aggression, oppression, and warfare.”

Kemmelmeier is now in the process of writing up two other sets of studies on exposure to the American flag. In one group of experiments, he found that seeing the stars and stripes elicits stronger feelings of individualism and materialism and much less collectivist feeling. "It brings forth an idea of ‘I 'm my own person; I am free here; I have the freedom to enjoy these inalienable rights, '” Kemmelmeier explained.

The other group of experiments (also in the process of being written up) is a lost letter study in which handwritten and stamped but undelivered letters were left on car windshield wipers, all with the same post office box. Half of the letters were addressed to a fictitious Muslim charity; half were addressed to a fictitious Christian charity. Among each group, half had an American flag on them, and half didn 't.

 
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