“Collective Narcissism” May Shape How Americans See History

How important was your home state in the course of United States history? Probably not as important as you think it was.

A new study published in Psychological Science suggests that Americans have an inflated sense of the role their home states played in American history.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by asking 2,898 people from all 50 states a simple question: “In terms of percentage, what do you think was your home state’s contribution to the history of the United States?”

Naturally, people from different states varied in their views of their home states’ historical importance. Those with the most inflated sense of their state’s historical weight were Virginians, who on average estimated their state’s contribution to U.S. history as 41 percent.

As a non-Virginian, I’ll acknowledge that Virginia played an important role in the early history of the United States. But to say that almost half of United States history took place in Virginia seems to border on the absurd!

The most modest respondents were those from Iowa, who estimated that their state made a 9 percent contribution to U.S. history. However, this figure still isn’t very modest when you consider that Iowa accounts for less than one percent of the U.S. population!

As you can tell, there’s going to be a problem when we add these percentages together. If everyone overestimates their home state’s historical importance, the percentages aren’t going to add up to 100 percent. And indeed, when the researchers added up the average estimates from all 50 states, the result was … 907 percent.

In other words, it appears that Americans exaggerate the historical importance of their home states by a factor of nine on average. This is a type of collective narcissism, which the researchers define as “a phenomenon in which individuals show excessively high regard for their own group.”

There’s no reason to believe that collective narcissism would be limited to how we perceive the states we live in. It’s plausible, for example, that Americans would take a similarly narcissistic view of the United States’s role in the world as a whole. In any case, the results are a good reminder to approach our own intuitions about history with skepticism.

Image: Flickr/Sue Waters