National psychology  

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National psychology refers to the (real or alleged) distinctive psychological make-up of particular nations, ethnic groups or peoples, and to the comparative study of those characteristics in social psychology, sociology, political science and anthropology.

The assumption of national psychology is that different ethnic groups, or people living in a national territory, are characterized by a distinctive "mix" of human attitudes, values, emotions, motivation and abilities which is culturally reinforced by the family, schooling, the state and the media.

According to the pioneer psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, the attempt to theorize scientifically about national psychology dates from the mid-18th century [1].


Use of national psychology

National psychology plays a role in politics via the ideology of nationalism. Politicians will appeal e.g. to "the French people", "the American people", the "Russian people", the idea being that members of a nation have a common national identity, are part of a national community, and share common interests (the "national interest").

Closely related is the idea of the national character which refers to the values, norms and customs which people of a nation typically hold, their typical emotional responses, and what they regard as virtue and vice - all factors which determine how they will habitually respond to situations.

Nationalism aims to unite people as members of a nation, and for the purpose the belief that they really have common national characteristics is obviously useful, even those common characteristics cannot be proved beyond a shared language and a similar physical appearance. Friendly rivalry between national sports teams is often used to symbolize national identity or to express patriotism.

National psychology has sometimes been used to explain why economic development occurred in a different way in different countries, or why a particular turn of political events happened as it did.

Reference is sometimes made to the "national psyche" or the "soul" of a nation, to explain why some public events can trigger a commotion or uproar in a country, or why a particular nation gets particularly enthusiastic or obsessed with a sport or cultural practice.

The idea is that a nation shares a specific cultural mentality, morality or mindset, embedded in its language and institutions, which causes it to react much more strongly, or much less strongly, to particular situations than people of other nations would, and that people from different nations have different problem-solving strategies.

Criticism of the concept

However, the validity of the idea of a "national psychology" has been strongly criticized, both for political/moral and scientific reasons.

  • Politically and morally, because it is conducive to racist and fascist generalisations about people, i.e. arbitrary discrimination between people in accordance with some prejudice or personal interest, which obstructs the acceptance of people as they are. For example, "Africans are lazy", "the Dutch are stingy", "Americans are greedy", "the French are romantic" "the Pakistanis are terrorists" etc. National chauvinism may lead directly to ascriptive discrimination against foreigners, meaning that one's own people are regarded as naturally superior, and foreigners inferior, rather than just different in some respects.
  • Scientifically, because it is in reality very difficult to describe and generalise about ethnic differences in a valid and objective way. What applies to a nationality may not apply at all to an individual who is part of that nation. Insofar as the generalizations and distinctions drawn are valid, they may be too general, or require too many qualifications, to be useful.

Part of the problem is that researchers usually interpret another culture from the point of view of the culture they are used to (regarded as "normal"). Even if many people in a country share a common psychological or biological characteristic, other people in that country may not share that characteristic at all. The important ways in which people differ may outweigh the common characteristics which they can all be proved to share.

Psychologists have found in research that when subjects are asked to identify the ethnicity or nationality by observing a line-up of different people, they cannot accurately recognize what their ethnicity is. Marketing and Media experts have found that at most people can identify a representative stereotype, archetype or caricature which symbolises a particular ethnic group, or characteristic ways of relating which a nation has.

Two additional complications are, that:

  • the mentality of a nation may change over time, through shared experiences, and therefore that the characteristics which are thought to be "typical" of a nation may change over time. In modern society, often the young generation no longer identifies with the ways of the old generation, including their ideas of national identity and norms.
  • large-scale international migration of peoples from different nations means that immigrants take on part of the habits and culture of the country to which they move, while also retaining part of their original culture. In this way, different national cultures are merged and a new culture may be formed which has no clear "national" identification. This, together with the growth of international tourism, also means that people in one country increasingly adopt customs and habits from other countries, so that a nationally distinctive culture declines.

Because of all these difficulties in defining national psychology, often the most insightful portrayals of it are not really "scientific", but are found rather in the metaphors of fiction, for example in novels and films. These can gives insight into the "typical" emotional and intellectual world of a people, without pretending to apply to all its members.

Globalization and postmodernity

Some writers argue that in the era of globalisation, national or ethnic differences can less and less explain why people behave as they do. Increasingly, it seems that many people do not identify with being part of a nation, and just want to be recognized as a human being with human rights. They might cherish the place where they were born, without however being particularly patriotic. Other writers note that appeals to a national identity can be revived and used as a xenophobic response to perceptions that a country or region is being "taken over" by foreign corporations, or "overrun" by foreign immigrants.

Especially in Europe but also in many other parts of the world, adherence to a religion has strongly declined, and therefore the shared view of morality and human nature which religious authorities previously provided is no longer accepted. Religion has had a very strong influence on the shaping of national identity, and as this influence has declined, it can no longer define a national psychology as it used to.

In some strands of postmodernism, nations are no longer viewed as legally enforced territories but as imagined communities in which national identification becomes increasingly vaguer. Thus, for example, Michel Foucault claimed that in the West, "the project of the science of the subject has gravitated, in ever-narrowing circles, around the question of sex" (Foucault, The history of sexuality, Vol. 1, Vintage, p. 70). This could be understood to mean that people really identify more with sexuality than nationality nowadays.

Nevertheless, despite controversy, the concept of a "national psychology" still persists, insofar as people can observe practically e.g. through tourism and television that there are definitely differences in the way people live life, and how they think about it, in different countries, quite apart from differences in physical appearance or language. There are nowadays books on the national character of practically every people on earth.


  • H.C.J. Duijker and N.H. Frijda, National character and national stereotypes, 1960.
  • W. Buchanan and H. Cantril, How nations see each other. UNESCO, 1953.
  • Siegfried Kracauer, "Les types nationaux vus par Holywood", in Revue Internationale de Filmologie, Vol. 2 no. 6.
  • Frederick Hertz, Nationality in history and politics; a study of the psychology and sociology of national sentiment and character, 1955
  • Wilhelm Wundt, Volkerpsychologie, 1900
  • Wilhelm Wundt, Die Nationen und ihre philosophie, 1916
  • Otto Klineberg, Tensions affecting international understanding. UNESCO, 1950.
  • Geoffrey Gorer, "The concept of national character", Science News, no. 18, 1950.
  • Geoffrey Gorer, "Modification of the national character: the role of the police in England", in: Douglas G. Haring, Personal character and cultural milieu", 1956, pp. 329-392.
  • Dean Peabody, National characteristics. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Uichol Kim, Kuo-Shu Yang, Kwang-Kuo Hwang (eds.),Indigenous and cultural psychology. Springer, 2006.
  • A. Maurice Low, The American people, a study in national psychology. SPO, University of Michigan Library, 2005.
  • Martyn Barnett, Children's Knowledge, Beliefs and Feelings about Nations and National Groups. Psychology Press, 2006.
  • Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character. ACLS Humanities, 2008

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "National psychology" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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