Monday, January 31, 2022

Researchers at University of Limerick have played a role in a new study examining national identity and support for COVID-19 health measures in over 60 countries.

According to the large international study, those who identify more strongly with their nation report greater engagement with public health behaviours and support for public health policies.

The analysis of attitudes across 67 countries, which appears in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that national identities play a significant and positive role in battling a global pandemic.

Cillian McHugh and Siobhán Griffin, both postdoctoral researchers in the Department of Psychology in UL, alongside colleague Darragh McCashin in DCU, were authors on the paper, which had an international team from universities around the globe.

“This research presented a unique opportunity to study responses to COVID-19 health advice on a large-scale international level, and in a variety of political and social contexts. We are delighted to have played a role in this and put Ireland on the map so to speak,” explained Cillian.

“Past research has shown us that group identity can be a positive resource that we can harness in times of stress. With this research we find evidence that when people value their national identity, that is feeling close to one’s nation, this can have positive implications for adherence to public health advice,” added Siobhán.

The study’s international team of more than 200 researchers, who also come from New York University (USA), Harvard University (USA), University of Kent (UK), Mackenzie Presbyterian University (Brazil), De La Salle University (Philippines), Adolfo Ibáñez University (Chile), University of Dhaka (Bangladesh), University of Helsinki (Finland), National Taiwan University (Taiwan), Tribhuvan University (Nepal), Leiden University (Netherlands), Kyushu University (Japan), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and University of Western Ontario (Canada), University of Silesia (Poland), Shenzhen University (China), University of Canterbury (New Zealand), University of Melbourne (Australia), among other institutions, recognised the productive role national identity might play in responding to a widespread crisis—in this case, 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.

To weigh this, the researchers aimed to separate national identity, which gauges how strongly people identify with their country, from national narcissism, which is a form of social identity that involves the belief that one’s group—or, in this case, nation—is exceptional but also underappreciated by others. Past studies have found that national identification tends to correlate with national narcissism because they both involve a positive evaluation of one’s nation. However, the researchers note, they are linked to very different outcomes.

For example, prejudice against outgroups (those seen as different) is negatively associated with national identification, but positively with national narcissism.

In their study, the researchers conducted a survey, which included nearly 50,000 respondents across 67 countries, asking the extent to which participants reported adopting public health behaviours (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 and national narcissism.

Overall and across the studied countries, respondents who reported identifying more strongly with their nation consistently reported greater engagement in public health behaviours and support for public health policies.

Interestingly, unlike left-wing ideology, right-wing political ideology had a positive, moderate correlation with both national identification and national narcissism, but very weak correlations with support for public health measures. This suggests that political ideology may be relatively unimportant for predicting public health behaviour 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.

“It is important to note that the relationship between national identity and public health support was distinct from national narcissism,” the study’s authors wrote.

“In past research, national narcissism has predominantly been linked to problematic attitudes towards both out-group and in-group members. However, we found that national narcissism was positively associated with self-reported physical hygiene and support for COVID-19 preventative policies. Still, these effects were much smaller than those for national identity.”

To better understand if self-reporting was reflected in the actual actions individuals took, the team conducted a second international study. Here, they used two publicly available datasets—the World Values Survey, which measures values and beliefs over time and across countries, and the COVID-19 Google Community Mobility Reports, which indicate how people’s physical movement has changed in response to COVID-19.

The researchers created an index of national identification using two items from the World Value Survey (i.e., national pride and closeness to their nation) and an index of physical mobility by averaging community movement across all available places (i.e., retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential).

They then examined whether countries with higher average national identification prior to the pandemic predicted a stronger reduction in mobility after the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world during April and May 2020.

Consistent with the results from the initial survey, national identification was associated with reduced spatial mobility, suggesting that those with a strong national identity were following public health guidelines by reducing their movements, thereby reducing physical interactions with others.

Study data may be found on the Open Science Framework page.

This work complements other ongoing work in the Department of Psychology in UL, that has highlighted the importance of national solidarity (feeling solidarity with the national community) for adherence to public health in Ireland, this paper by Aoife-Marie Foran, Jenny Roth, Sarah Jay, Siobhán Griffin, Paul Maher, Cillian McHugh, Daragh Bradshaw, Michael Quayle, and Orla Muldoon, can be found here.