March 23, 2022

Identification with one’s nation predicts greater engagement with public health behaviors, such as masking and social distancing, and support for public health policies, finds an analysis of attitudes across 67 countries.

Nick D. Ungson, assistant professor of psychology Nick D. Ungson, assistant professor of psychologyThe research, which appears in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that national identities play a significant and positive role in battling a global pandemic. Nick D. Ungson, assistant professor of psychology at Susquehanna and one of the paper’s authors, co-led data collection efforts for the project that involved an international team of more than 200 researchers.

“Nationalism has been blamed for a lot of negative issues,” Ungson said. “But what we see here is that strong identification with social groups and pride in one’s country can lead to positive sacrifice for the greater good – in this case, in response to a global pandemic.”

The study, which included researchers from Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, recognizes the productive role national identity might play in responding to a widespread crisis — such as the coronavirus pandemic.

While Covid-19’s impact has been global, policies and calls for practices to address it have largely been implemented by individual nations, raising the question of the role national identity plays in responding to country-based public health measures.

In their study, the researchers conducted a survey, which included nearly 50,000 respondents, asking the extent to which participants reported adopting public health behaviors (e.g., spatial distancing and stricter hygiene) and endorsed public policy measures (e.g., closing bars and restaurants) during the early stage of the pandemic (April–May 2020). They also asked about respondents’ political ideology (e.g., left-wing or right-wing) and included questions aimed at capturing national identification.

Overall and across the studied countries, respondents who reported identifying more strongly with their nation consistently reported greater engagement in public health behaviors and support for public health policies. However, unlike left-wing ideology, right-wing political ideology had a positive, moderate correlation with national identification, but very weak correlations with support for public health measures. This suggests that political ideology may be relatively unimportant for predicting public health behavior outside the United States, the researchers say. There was one exception: right-wing political beliefs, across several countries, were associated with less support for COVID-19 public health government policies compared to left-wing political beliefs.

“In the case of a global pandemic, the best response is a collective one,” Ungson said. “I think the most important takeaway from this research is that, when harnessed the right way, national identity can be used as a kind of leverage to encourage us to lean on our inherent connectedness and national pride to do the things that not only help ourselves, but also help others.”