The psychology of patriotism after tragedy

In the days following the tragic Boston Marathon bombings and the capturing of the suspects, Americans took to the streets in celebration. Carrying American flags and chanting patriotic slogans, enthusiastic Americans made an effort to show their undeniably strong sense of pride and unity towards their country in such difficult times.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Sabga/Flickr

Photo courtesy of Amanda Sabga/Flickr

This strong display of patriotism is seen as a normal reaction, according to Political Science Professor David Hopkins, who says that terrorist attacks and international incidents tend to increase feelings of patriotism in citizens.

“Citizens tend to respond by expressing more positive feelings about their political leaders and governmental institutions," Hopkins said. "In the wake of 9/11, not only did President Bush’s approval rating spike to 90 percent but even Congress – an institution that Americans usually dislike overwhelmingly – temporarily received positive ratings. This is known as the 'rally ‘round the flag' phenomenon. However, its effects are only temporary," said Hopkins.

Hopkins believes that the recent Boston Marathon bombings will not have nearly the political impact that the 9/11 attacks had. For one thing, it is less of a shock given previous terrorist attacks. Second, the Marathon attacks were on a much smaller scale compared to those inflicted against New York City on 9/11 says Hopkins. Third, from what we can tell, this event was the gavel2work of two people acting on their own, with no apparent ties to a larger terrorist group or foreign state. The Marathon bombings will not necessarily have a particularly permanent effect on citizens' political attitudes, but patriotic sentiments towards the event might emerge again on a national level once the suspect is brought to trial.

Although such political aspects of the recent Boston Marathon bombings may be questioned, it is without a doubt that the recent events have had a psychological effect on our nation. This can be seen most specifically with regards to how individuals treat one another in times of crisis.

A wave of fear and cynicism also came with the strong unity and brotherhood portrayed after the Boston Marathon bombing.  After the media had released more information about the brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, there emerged backlash towards immigrants and Muslims especially in the media.

Professor Liane Young, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Boston College, suggests that this sort of backlash is a normal reaction.

“Research in social psychology has explored how 'in group love' can sometimes be link to 'out-group hate,' especially in cases of conflict or competition,” Young said. “ We might feel as though our resources are limited – in a zero-sum fashion – if they win, we lose.”

Young further added that research suggests that it is that sort of attitude that can lead to discrimination against outsiders – and at the same time stronger bonds within a community.

To learn more about efforts to combat discrimination at BC, visit the Facebook page of a recent initiative called Don’t Meet Hurt with Hate.

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