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 Psychologyin 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.
The return rate for the letters without a flag was consistently between 50 and 60 percent, regardless of whether the charity was Christian or Muslim. But when the American flag was on the envelope, a remarkable 90 percent of the letters addressed to the Christian charity consistently came back to the post office, while only between 30 and 40 percent of the Muslim charity letters were returned.
“As soon as there was a flag sticker, that changed the meaning completely,” Kemmelmeier explained. “Adding the flag shapes how you should interpret what religion somebody is.”
But while Kemmelmeier’s studies point to a somewhat unsettling take on what Americans take away from seeing the flag, another set of studies offers a more positive perspective, suggesting that the presence of Old Glory primes egalitarian concepts and also may make Americans less hostile to Arabs and Muslims.
David A. Butz (formerly a graduate student at Florida State University and now a postdoc at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), E. Ashby Plant (a professor of psychology at FSU) and Celeste E. Doerr (a psychology graduate student at FSU) recently administered word identification tests to undergraduates to measure how long it took them to discriminate between real and nonsense words that came up on a computer screen.
Participants who saw a flag before the test more quickly identified words associated with egalitarianism than those who didn’t. Exposure to the flag also elicited more favorable attitudes toward Muslims and less nationalism in a survey. The findings were reported in 2007 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“What we show is that the flag is associated with egalitarian concepts,” Butz said. “This is true for both high- and low-nationalism people. It’s not moderated by political party. What it means is that through socialization experiences, we gain these egalitarian concepts with the flag.”
However, Butz speculated that “perhaps this is a surface meaning.” He was actually a little surprised by the egalitarianism-priming findings, given other research suggesting that exposure to the American flag increases nationalism and the hierarchical, anti-egalitarian feelings that come with that.
“The flag has a complex range of associations,” he said. “Symbols like the flag can be multireferential. They can mean different things to different people. It shows how tricky it is to study the symbols.”
In Israel, cognitive scientist Ran Hassin studied the association that subliminal flashes of the Israeli flag had on discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and found that “subliminal presentation of a national flag can bring about significant changes not only in a citizen's expressed political opinions within an experimental setting but also in their ‘real-life’ overt political behavior.” In his experiments, participants — all Israelis — who saw the flag flashes answered questions with a more “mainstream Zionist” tilt than those who didn’t.
Whether that meant the flag drew viewers to the political center, as Hassin theorized, or that symbols primed people based on their pre-existing associations was a question he left for future research — such as that of Kemmelmeier and Butz — to answer.
Butz got interested in studying the flag in light of a 2004 Florida law (the Carey Baker Freedom Flag Act) that mandates flags be placed in every public classroom — kindergarten to college — in the state. (A similar law also recently passed in Arizona.)
These laws worry Butz. “We don’t know a lot about the potential for symbols to influence behavior,” he said. “It’s scary to think that there are laws out there on the thinking that flags influence patriotism, and there’s no evidence for that.”
Another reason for concern comes from some research that Butz has done on student performance in the presence of the American flag. With a flag in the room, he found, white students perform about 10 percent better on math tests than they do otherwise. But non-white students perform at the same level.
“What we find in studies — and this is now being replicated — is that whites are getting a performance boost, and that’s disturbing,” Butz said. He speculated that it might have something to do with whites feeling more included in the presence of the flag.
Both Kemmelmeier and Butz stress that the psychology of the American flag is complicated. It can prime a wide range of emotions, depending on the person and the situation. There may also be regional differences. And while the flag is not necessarily the pure symbol of inspired patriotism that some might make it out to be, neither is it necessarily a pure symbol of nationalism and individualistic materialism. A lot depends on the context.
“It can have a negative impact, but nowadays there is a real opportunity to re-interpret what it means to be an American,” Kemmelmeier said. “The flag is always amorphous, and the meaning is always dependent on how it is used.”