The Differences between Nationalism and Patriotism

US social issues argument or political war as an American culture conflict with two opposing sides as conservative and liberal political dispute

Like many of you, I found myself on a major roller coaster ride of thoughts and emotions over these last two weeks where there was so much going on politically in our country that seemed to be tearing us apart. Chaos seemed to rule. There have been many news stories and commentaries, some attempting to be relatively impartial and others clearly being very biased.

I decided to do some of my own research on what might be going on in our brains when it comes to differentiating between nationalism and patriotism. Google defines nationalism as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” It defines patriotism as, “devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country.”

I took the liberty of viewing nationalism as a description of what seems to be happening in our country these days with people aligning themselves with groups that hold certain beliefs and values that in many ways can seem to be in opposition to those of other groups or of the values of our country.

I think it is important to say that I am only scratching the surface of the subject. It is my hope that it will spark an interest in my readers to do more research on their own because of all the fear, stress, anger and pain that seems to be pervasive, regardless of someone’s political position. We benefit from recognizing that knowledge is power and we all need a little power these days. In these last few weeks, there has been so much unrest and anxiety that is creating a kind of collective trauma and dividing us as a people. People are shutting down, fearing for the future of the country, afraid that more violence will break out with people getting hurt or even killed.

I found this article helpful. In it Tom Jacobs began by talking about dehumanizing those we might not align with, stating the following: “If you get to the point where citing ‘thems’ causes your followers to activate neurons in the insular cortex—the part of the brain that responds to viscerally disgusting things—you’ve finished most of your to-do list for your genocide.”

Sapolsky says, “The easiest symbols that we grab onto in deciding if someone is an “us” or a “them” are visceral ones. Being disgusted by someone’s personal behavior—the way ‘they’ do stuff—is a much easier entree to hating them than disagreeing with their views on [something less emotionally charged, like] the trade deficit. He noted that people then scapegoat others, adding that scapegoating is something that makes a person feel better because they feel superior.

Political struggle. Democratic debate. Formation of political movements

I think it is fair to say that those who were participating in the riots on January 6th were not in their cortexes, the thinking parts of their brain, but rather were behaving viscerally, although many people were there to peacefully protest and when they saw the violence break out, they removed themselves. Mobs have what is called a mob mentality, which is really governed by out-of-control emotions and mindlessly behaving in ways that they might not ordinarily behave. In those moments they were at the mercy of their lower brain regions.

At the same time many of them could be categorized as nationalists, groups of people who could fit the definition provided in an article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI that states: “… nationalism is an identification with and a positive evaluation of one’s nation which is inherently related to derogation of other nations. In contrast, patriotism is defined as pride in one’s nation, which is based on a positive evaluation of the nation independently of comparisons with other countries.

The article goes on to state the following “… nationalism appears to be associated with a wide range of psychological characteristics related to (a) aggressiveness and competitiveness, (b) lack of compassion and cooperativeness, and (c) feelings of superiority over others; whereas patriotism is associated with a wide range of psychological characteristics related to (d) positive feeling and (b) cooperativeness.”

The authors continue and go on to provide a detailed explanation of how various parts of the brain react differently when someone is behaving from a position of nationalism versus patriotism. It is a lot to understand but the bottom line is that our brains behave very differently if we are more predisposed to nationalism versus patriotism and vice versa.

I would like to think that the vast majority of people in this country desire more to be patriots than nationalists, although I am not sure of what the statistics would say. While there may be times when violence is necessary to stop those who are violating the rights of others, by and large violence typically sets off a chain reaction creating more violence. It looks like neuroscience validates this.

Maybe this will give you the opportunity to pause and reflect on recent events, viewing them through the lenses of neuroscience. While understanding something more clearly doesn’t necessarily give us the specific action steps we need to take, it can be a start to that process.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. To what extent can you appreciate the differences between nationalism and patriotism?
  2. Where do you fit in?  Do you see yourself as a nationalist and/or a patriot? How does this influence your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors?
  3. Where do you think others in your circles fit?  How does this influences their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors?
  4. What are some helpful and healthy things you can do to promote greater levels of patriotism in yourself and others?


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