Thursday, January 27, 2022

Those who reported identifying more strongly with their nation consistently reported greater engagement in public health behaviours (spatial distance, hygiene) & support for public health policies (closing bars/restaurants), at least Apr-May 2020

National identity predicts public health support during a global pandemic. Jay J. Van Bavel et al. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 517. Jan 27 2022.

Abstract: Changing collective behaviour and supporting non-pharmaceutical interventions is an important component in mitigating virus transmission during a pandemic. In a large international collaboration (Study 1, N = 49,968 across 67 countries), we investigated self-reported factors associated with public health behaviours (e.g., spatial distancing and stricter hygiene) and endorsed public policy interventions (e.g., closing bars and restaurants) during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic (April-May 2020). Respondents who reported identifying more strongly with their nation consistently reported greater engagement in public health behaviours and support for public health policies. Results were similar for representative and non-representative national samples. Study 2 (N = 42 countries) conceptually replicated the central finding using aggregate indices of national identity (obtained using the World Values Survey) and a measure of actual behaviour change during the pandemic (obtained from Google mobility reports). Higher levels of national identification prior to the pandemic predicted lower mobility during the early stage of the pandemic (r = −0.40). We discuss the potential implications of links between national identity, leadership, and public health for managing COVID-19 and future pandemics.


Our research suggests that national identities might play an important role in the fight against a global pandemic. Following World War II, early work in social psychology had a tendency to focus on the negative side of nationalism and leadership persuasion, such as destructive obedience to authority54 and group conformity to incorrect beliefs held by others55. In the decades since then, research on social identity10 and a “social cure” approach to mental health56 has revealed that there is also a pro-social side to group identity. Based on this latter perspective we predicted, and found, that NI was positively associated with support for and engagement with public health behaviours around the globe.

In two global studies combining person-level and country-level analyses, the strength of national identity robustly predicted public health support, operationalized as behavioural health intentions (i.e., physical distance and physical hygiene), support for COVID-19 policy interventions, and reduced physical movement patterns during the pandemic. We found this pattern with self-report measures at the person-level and using measures of actual mobility at the country level. The fact that national identity is associated with large-scale behaviour in real life provides ecologically valid evidence for our main hypothesis. Taken together, these results are consistent with our hypothesis that NI is related to greater behaviour change in compliance with public health policies. We note that the results showing a decline in mobility should be treated with caution, as in the mobility report location accuracy and the categorization of places can vary between countries. In short, people who identified more strongly with their nation reported greater engagement with critical public health measures around the globe.

These results are consistent with the social psychological literature on the benefits of identifying with one’s social groups. They also underscore a potential benefit of NI, which might be salient during a national or global health crisis23. Our research provides evidence that this form of identification might help to understand public health behaviours. However, work in the United States has found that threats to national identity can lead to less support for public health initiatives57. As such, mobilizing people around a shared national identity might require considerable nuance. Future work should examine the impact of different types of identity appeals during a pandemic and isolate the causal influence of national identity on real behaviour.

There is reason to believe that other forms of group identification can undercut public health. For instance, partisanship within countries (i.e., when people strongly identify with a specific political party) is associated with risky behaviour25,26,58. For example, one study that used geo-tracking data from 15 million smartphones in the US found that counties that voted for a Republican (Donald Trump) over a Democrat (Hillary Clinton) exhibited 14% less spatial distancing during the early stages of the pandemic26. These partisan gaps in distancing predicted subsequent increases in infections and mortality in counties that voted for Donald Trump. Moreover, partisanship was a stronger predictor of distancing than many other economic or social factors (e.g., county-level income, population density, religion, age, and state policy). This may be due to leadership, social norms, and media consumed by people from different identity groups. As such, stronger group identification is not always associated with engagement in public-health behaviour.

It is tempting to conclude that PI might account for these relationships. However, we found that right-wing PI had a positive, moderate correlation with both NI and NN, but very weak correlations with support with public health measures in our multi-country sample. Specifically, right-wing political beliefs were associated with less support for COVID-19 public health policies, compared to left-wing political beliefs. This relationship between political beliefs and compliance has been observed in several countries (e.g., refs. 48,49,59). Similarly, while NI and NN were associated positively with support for public health measures, right-wing PI was negatively associated with these outcomes. This suggests that a collective identity might be associated with valuing the protection of the entire group during a pandemic, even after adjusting for their ideological differences.

It is also important to note that the relationship between national identity and public health support was distinct from NN. In past research, NN has predominantly been linked to problematic attitudes towards both out-group and in-group members38,40,60. However, we found that NN was positively associated with self-reported physical hygiene and support for COVID-19 preventative policies (cf. ref. 42). Still, these effects were much smaller than those for national identity and depended on the context. Future work should thus carefully consider cross-national differences in human development as well as social norms associated with national identity.

Our evidence suggests that national identity may have modest predictive value for people’s endorsement of and adherence to public health measures in the context of a pandemic. This information may be leveraged to create a sense of inclusive nation-based in-groups, potentially increasing engagement with recommended policies. Political and public health leaders might develop effective communication strategies to appeal to a sense of NI. Indeed, this might be particularly helpful in highly polarized countries where adherence to public health recommendations has become a partisan issue (see ref. 26). For instance, Canadian leaders across the political spectrum adopted similar messaging about the serious risks of the current pandemic which resulted in a rare moment of cross-partisan consensus among the public61. Such recategorizations to overarching inclusive national groups (e.g., ref. 62) may be effective for preventing unhealthy behaviours. As such, leaders who wish to inspire public health behaviour might benefit from connecting the issue to feelings of national identity. Framing these messages at the level of the nation rather than, for instance, a partisan group, region, or municipality also makes sense when the response requires national coordination22,63.

However, the effective application of these appeals requires future research as national identity is also implicated in intergroup conflict. This is more likely in the case of NN36,60, which tends to be associated with lower solidarity with other groups in crisis (e.g., ref. 64). In the absence of collective narcissism, national identity could reflect not only concerns about protecting one’s own country, but also into concern for other nations. Indeed, prior research has found that NI is associated with more positive attitudes towards other nations—especially when adjusting for NN37,45. Thus, the nature of national identity might be an important determinant of the effectiveness of identity and the potential for international cooperation. In addition, it could turn out that a commitment to cosmopolitanism or other supranational identities and ideologies may play a role that bolsters what we have seen in the case of national identity65.

One major strength of our paper is the scope of nations we included in our samples. The first study included data from 67 nations and the second study included data from 42 countries. The vast majority of published research in psychology and social sciences has been conducted in so-called WEIRD cultures66, typically restricted to the narrow western and educational setting of American or European university students, and non-representative participants from industrialized, rich and democratic countries. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is a truly global issue underscoring the importance of gathering samples outside these WEIRD cultures. Moreover, it was striking to see that the same person-level association between NI and our public health measures was in the same direction in almost every country we studied. Although we managed to collect data from a wide variety of countries and territories, we were unable to obtain samples from every nation (especially in Africa and the middle east). As such, we encourage future research in these countries to see if the same dynamics are at play.

Another element of our paper was an attempt to collect representative or stratified samples in Study 1. While most studies in psychology focus on convenience samples (e.g., undergraduate or MTurk participants), it is important to gather samples that are more diverse with regards to gender, age, and other key risk factors during a pandemic. Collecting representative samples affords the opportunity to help make better generalizations to the wider population within each country as well as the broader sample of countries around the globe. Due to funding constraints, we were not able to obtain representative samples from most nations. As such, we are unable to make strong generalizations about the populations in those countries. But note that we did directly compare the findings in more vs. less representative samples and found no significant difference in the overall relationship between NI and all three public health measures (see Supplementary Information for details).

This research was correlational and conducted during the early phase of the pandemic. Although a causal relation between NI and public health behaviour makes sense from a theoretical perspective, we cannot rule out the possibility that public health behaviour causes NI, or that both are caused by a third variable (e.g., ref. 23). Moreover, we have no evidence whether this pattern would apply during later stages of the current or future pandemics. Indeed, national identity may increase during times of crisis as people recognize their duty as citizens to help respond to this issue. We encourage future work to experimentally manipulate the salience of NI or frame health messages in a way that highlights the link between identification and the public health measures. Another limitation is the exclusive focus on national groups rather than, for instance, identification with a city, region, religion, or ethnic group—or, for that matter, all of humanity. Some research suggests that local leaders may be ineffective if their advice contradicts a national leader (see ref. 26). In the current pandemic, nations have been among the most important actors for implementing policy or promoting national health guidelines, but sub-national units and international organizations such as the World Health Organization also play an important role.

The COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the world is one of the most devastating global health crises of the past century. Until a verifiably safe and effective vaccine or therapeutic treatment is universally administered, efforts to inspire collective action for greater compliance with public health measures remain a central challenge when mitigating the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (e.g., spatial distancing, physical hygiene, and support for health policies). Moreover, understanding social identity and collective behaviour likely plays a key role in vaccination efforts67. Our large-scale studies suggest that identification with one’s nation is positively associated with support for and engagement in critical behavioural public health measures. Understanding the role of social identity appears to be an important issue when addressing public health crises.