The Effects of Nationalist Sentiments on Society

Nationalists are frequently carried away by the kinds of feelings that make them exalt their own countries with forceful passion. But, in what other ways is this feeling expressed on a daily basis?
The Effects of Nationalist Sentiments on Society
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

Nationalist sentiments often act like a kind of virus. Once they enter the brain, they shape and distort the individual’s worldview, feeding their impulsiveness and cognitive biases. In fact, their mental focus narrows to the point of assuming that their nation is superior, thanks to its history, culture, and everything related to it.

Although not all nationalism leads to extremism and inherent violence, the way in which it manifests is always striking from a socio-psychological point of view. Its passion and patriotic spirit translate into group behaviors, intense emotions, and unconscious attachments. In this article, we’re going to explore them.

“Nationalism is the main scoundrel of all evils. It divides people, destroys the good side of human nature, and leads to inequality in the distribution of wealth.”

-José Luis Borges-

man expressing nationalist sentiment
Nationalist sentiments are often expressed via a form of group narcissism.

The expression of nationalist sentiments

Almost all of us identify with our countries or regions of origin. Their stories move us, and make us feel part of extremely diverse and, to a great extent, intangible entities. Moreover, we don’t always draw imaginary and dividing lines marking the borders of the territories in which we were born or adopted from a young age.

However, some individuals exhibit marked nationalist sentiments. They experience intense feelings of belonging to a particular country. The psychological current in which they’re tied up manifests itself behaviorally and attitudinal in multiple ways. These behaviors have a noticeable impact on the community and the society in which the nationalistic individuals live.

You might also like to read Polarized Thinking: A Cognitive Distortion

1. Loyalty and devotion to a nation

Nationalism is fed back from the ingroup and the feeling of belonging that derives from it. In this context, loyalty is nuclear. It’s common to see these individuals defend their members, regardless of what they might express or do. The defense of the group or the ‘we’ is fundamental.

Moreover, the members of the people or nation who profess the same ideals and patriotism, are faithful to their dogmas and stipulated beliefs. Indeed, their absolute devotion to their history, culture, and language ignites a series of deep emotions in them.

2. Irrational passions

People who lack marked nationalist feelings are often surprised at those who do exhibit them. These might include acts, celebrations, and behaviors motivated by almost irrational passions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for these individuals to carry out self-sacrificing behavior. For example, transgressing the law for the supposed good of their beliefs and their nation.

3. Identity of the ‘I’ in front of the ‘others’

One of the most recurring psychosociological factors among those who harbor a strong sense of nationalism is the separation between the ‘I’ and the ‘others’. These people develop identities that perceive other peoples, cultures, and nations as ‘different’ or even ‘inferior’.

Another common phenomenon is the concept of the ‘I’ diluted with the ingroup, to the point of constructing completely fictitious realities. For example, nationalists might claim that their group is always attacked and subdued by others. Therefore, they feel they deserve self-determination.

Nationalism, taken to its extremes, leads to various forms of violence. This can be personal or institutional.

4. Bias and prejudices

Social learning and the role of the environment often mediate the development of clearly nationalistic mental and emotional approaches. For this reason, numerous cognitive biases instilled by the environment are frequently present in the minds of nationalist supporters. Next, we’ll give some examples. These ideas tend to be common in the speeches of all nationalists:

  • Ingroup favoritism. Those who think like them are better than others.
  • Polarized thinking. Things are either good or bad. Other people are either with them or against them.
  • Confirmation bias. Validating or remembering only what fits what they believe.
  • Naive realism. Assuming that what they believe is true and thinking that other people exhibit naive reasoning.

5. Inflexible cognitive styles

Nationalist sentiment and the way in which its cognitive bases are orchestrated have aroused the interest of many researchers. Proof of this can be found in a study conducted by New York University (USA) concerning the underpinnings of nationalist ideology during Brexit.

The study mentions how nationalist sentiment is accompanied by rigid thinking. Therefore, the information isn’t processed reflexively, but categorically and inflexibly. In fact, nationalists reject everything that doesn’t conform to their own beliefs.

6. Strong attachments

We frequently see people who exhibit strong attachments to the symbols, history, and culture of their country. Sadly, these behaviors often tend to be expressed with violence. Indeed, nationalist supporters often discriminate against the tastes or practices of others who don’t identify with the concept of their nation in the same way.

7. Collective narcissism

Interestingly, nationalistic sentiments are often evidenced by narcissistic behavior. However, it’s a kind of collective narcissism. As such, the ingroup moves and acts via arrogant, selfish, and manipulative behaviors.

The University of Minnesota (USA) investigated this phenomenon. They wanted to justify why nationalist groups exacerbate their superiority as a people; even justifying the need to dominate other nations. A troublesome fact.

You might be interested to read Nationalism and Its Impact on Society

soccer fans expressing nationalist sentiment
Extreme nationalism can lead to street brawls or, in more problematic cases, coups.

Types of Nationalism and their social implications

We often perceive nationalism as an attitude that hasn’t really evolved. There are certain precedents that support this view. For instance, misunderstood love for the homeland was the spark that ignited unfortunate and catastrophic revolutions such as Nazism.

On the other hand, there are also historical events in which nationalism produced social cohesion that translated into progress. We’re going to give you some examples.

National and cultural passions brought to a climax often lead to racist behaviors and hatred of those who are different. But, countries like Canada advocate transnationalism.

Civic nationalism

Australia, New Zealand, and Canada promote a form of civic and reflective nationalism. They integrate the diverse cultures of their territories, without discriminating against other societies. These are countries that, although they promote unity and independence, seek to include the different cultures that make them up.

They produce feelings of cohesion that make everyone aware, as a society, of the strength they have if they pursue specific goals together.

This concept becomes a virtue when, in a great exercise of skill, it moves away from discrimination of ideas or people. These aren’t perfect societies, but they support the idea that a humane and humanitarian sense is possible in nationalism.

Extreme nationalism

This is the nationalist feeling that takes over in scenarios of bipolarity, crisis, and fragmentation. We can see it in many countries today. The effects it has on reality are immense. Although we don’t always notice them immediately, it leaves fractures that gradually become more evident. These are the consequences of extreme nationalism:

  • Racism and hatred of those who are different.
  • It promotes the fracture of the population and urges revolution and chaos.
  • Extremist behaviors. For example, violence in the streets and in sports.
  • It seeks to preserve the national culture. This means vetoing other social and cultural groups.
  • An extreme nationalist will lie and distort reality to give an image of superiority.
  • A government dominated by nationalist ideals and passions will justify its aggression toward other countries.
  • Extreme nationalists will break the law because they feel entitled to do so. They use fallacious reasoning to do so.

The nationalist sentiment and its positive side

Mark Twain defined a patriot as “the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about”. There’s a great deal of truth in these words. In fact, it’s a good idea to look up from our daily lives occasionally and reflect on how different kinds of nationalism are shaking the world.

That said, nationalism can have a positive side. It can encourage us to recognize ourselves and our people and feel a part of where we live. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t forget that we live on an extraordinarily heterogeneous planet in which, fortunately, natural and social wealth is distributed.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.