What causes nationalism? (Ultimate guide)


To understand what causes nationalism and explore in-depth the psychology of nationalists, we have to start with understanding what the term nationalism means.

Nationalism is the belief that the nation to which one belongs is superior to other nations. It is characterized by viewing one’s nation favorably and showing exaggerated love and support for one’s own country.

Nationalistic movements, on the other hand, are movements where a group of nationalists seek to establish or defend a nation.

Though patriotism and nationalism have more or less the same meaning, nationalism has a tinge of irrationality to it.

“Patriotism is the love for one’s country for what it does and nationalism is the love for one’s country no matter what it does.”

– Sydney Harris

Einstein went further in his pejorative and called nationalism an infantile disease- measles of mankind.

How nationalists think, feel and behave

Nationalists derive a sense of self-worth from being a part of their nation. They feel that by belonging to their nation, they’re part of something grander than themselves. Their nation is their extended identity.

Thus, elevating their nation to new heights with praise and boasting about its achievements elevates their own self-esteem.

Humans are hungry for praise and ego boost. In the case of nationalism, they use their nation as a tool to satisfy these needs. People who have other avenues to meet these needs are less likely to rely on nationalism for the purpose. 

Perhaps Einstein considered nationalism a disease because he didn’t require it to elevate his self-worth. He’d already elevated his self-worth to a satisfying degree by winning a Nobel Prize in Physics.

“Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Nationalism wouldn’t be much of a problem if the behaviour of nationalists was confined to irrational adoration of their nation. But that’s not the case and they go a step further to satisfy their esteem needs.

They make their nation look better by looking down upon other nations, especially their neighbours with whom they often compete for land.

Also, they only focus on the positives of their nation, ignoring its negatives and on the negatives of the rival nation, ignoring their positives. They will try to delegitimize the rival country:

“That country doesn’t even deserve to exist.”

They fuel insulting stereotypes about the citizens of the ‘enemy’ country. They believe their country is superior to every other country in the world, even if they’ve never visited or know next to nothing about those countries.

Even within a country, nationalists tend to target minority groups if they don’t see them as part of ‘their’ nation. The minorities may get treated as second class citizens at best or may be ethnically cleansed, at worst. 

On the other hand, nationalistic movements within nations are often started by minority groups who seek a separate nation for themselves.

man drawing national flags

The roots of nationalism

Nationalism stems from the basic human need to belong to a group. When we consider ourselves a part of some group, we treat our group members favourably. Those who don’t belong to the group are treated unfavourably. It’s the typical “us” versus “them” mentality where “us” comprises of “we and our nation” and “them” comprises of “they and their nation”.

At its core, nationalism is an ideology that attaches a group of people to a piece of land they happen to inhabit. The group members usually have the same ethnicity or they may share the same values or political ideologies or all of these. They believe their group is the rightful owner of their land.

When a nation has several ethnicities, but they share the same political ideology, they seek to establish a nation based on that ideology. However, this setup is likely to be unstable because there’s always a chance of inter-ethnic conflict. 

Same can happen the other way around: A nation with the same ethnicity throughout but different ideologies can engage in inter-ideological conflict.

However, the pull of inter-ethnic conflict is often stronger than the pull of inter-ideological conflict.

No wonder most intra-national conflicts such as civil wars involve two or more ethnicities, each ethnicity wanting the nation for themselves or trying to secede from the dominant ethnicity.

The tendency of ethnicities to claim ownership of the land they inhabit likely arose as a result of inter-group conflict. Ancestral humans had to compete for land, food, resources, and mates.

Prehistoric human groups lived in bands of 100 to 150 people and competed with other groups for land and other resources. Most people in a group were related to each other. So working for the group, rather than individually, was the best way to achieve maximum survival and reproductive success for one’s genes.

According to the inclusive fitness theory, people behave favourably and altruistically toward those who are closely related to them. As the degree of relatedness becomes smaller, so does the altruistic and favourable behaviour.1

In simpler terms, we help our immediate relatives (siblings and cousins) survive and reproduce because they carry our genes. The closer the relative, the more likely we are to help them because they carry more of our genes than distant kin.

Living in groups provided ancestral humans with security. Since most group members were related to each other, helping each other survive and reproduce meant replicating more of their own genes than they could’ve living alone.

Therefore, humans have psychological mechanisms that make them behave favourably toward their own group members and unfavourably toward out-groups. 

It doesn’t matter on what basis you form groups- ethnicity, caste, race, region, language, religion, or even a favourite sports team. Once you divide people into groups, they’ll automatically favour the group they belong to. Doing so has been critical for their evolutionary success.

Nationalism and genetic similarity 

Common ethnicity is one of the strongest foundations upon which humans organize themselves into nations. It is often the driving force behind nationalism. This is because people of the same ethnicity are more closely related to each other than they are to people outside of their ethnicities.

How do people decide that others are of the same ethnicity?

The strongest clues to someone’s genetic makeup being similar to your own are their physical features and physical appearance.

People belonging to the same ethnicity look similar, which means they share a lot of their genes with each other. This drives them to claim ownership of the land they inhabit and the resources they have access to. The more land and resources they have, the more they are able to spread their genes and enjoy greater reproductive success.

This is why nationalism has a strong territorial component. Nationalists are always trying to protect their land or gain more land or establish a land for themselves. Gaining access to land and resources is key to the reproductive success of their gene pool.

Again, this is not to say only people of the same ethnicity become nationalists. Any other ideology that successfully binds groups with different ethnicities, and they collectively strive for a land where their ideology can flourish, has the same effect, and is also a form of nationalism.

It’s just that this nationalistic structure tends to be unstable and vulnerable to disintegration, even though it hacks into the same psychological mechanisms for group-living.

Ethnicity often takes a priority over political ideology because common ethnicity is a reliable indicator of another group member being of the same genetic makeup as you. Common ideology is not.

To compensate for this, people subscribing to an ideology often wear clothes of the same style and colour. Some adopt their own fashions, headbands, hairstyles and beard styles. It’s a way for them to magnify their similarity. An irrational, subconscious attempt to convince each other that they have similar genes because they look more similar.

If an ethnicity is dominated by another within a nation, the latter fear for their survival and demand a nation of their own. This is how nationalistic movements start and new nations form.

It’s easy to understand now where things like racism, prejudice and discrimination stem from. 

If someone doesn’t look like you, has a different skin colour, speaks a different language, engages in different rituals and activities, they’re registered by your mind as an out-group. You perceive them to be in competition with you for land and other resources.

From this threat-perception stems the need to discriminate. When discrimination is based on skin colour, it’s racism. And when it’s based on region, it’s regionalism. 

When a dominant ethnicity takes over a country, they try to suppress or eliminate other ethnic groups, their cultural artefacts and languages.

If an ethnicity dominates another within a nation, the latter fears for its survival. They demand a nation of their own. This is how nationalistic movements start and new nations form.

It’s easy to understand now where things like racism, prejudice and discrimination stem from. 

If someone doesn’t look like you, has a different skin colour, speaks a different language, and engages in different rituals than you, your mind registers them as an out-group. You perceive them to be in competition with you for land and other resources.

From this threat-perception stems the need to discriminate. When discrimination is based on skin colour, it’s racism. And when it’s based on region, it’s regionalism. 

When a dominant ethnicity takes over a country, they try to suppress or eliminate other ethnic groups, their cultural artefacts and languages.

Nationalism and martyrdom

Human warfare involves large-scale fighting and killing. Nationalism ties together the people of a country so that they’re able to defend their territory and repel invaders.

The way humans engage in wars is very similar to how our closest genetic relatives- chimpanzees- behave. Groups of male chimps will patrol the edges of their territory, repel invaders, raid them, annex their territory, kidnap their females, and fight pitched battles.2

Open any history book and you’ll find that humans have been doing exactly that for hundreds and thousands of years.

Nationalism manifests itself overwhelmingly in no other thing as it does in a soldier. A soldier is basically a person who’s willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of his nation.

It makes sense. If one group member’s death increases the chances of survival and reproductive success of other group members who share his genes, he may end up replicating more of his genes than he could’ve if his group were dominated or eliminated by the enemy group.

This is the main reason suicide bombings happen. In their minds, suicide bombers think that by harming dominating out-groups, they’re benefiting in-groups and securing the prospects of survival and reproduction of their own gene pool.

What’s interesting is the attitudes that the people of a nation have toward their martyrs. Even if the martyr, by sacrificing his life, does end up benefiting his nation, the sacrifice still seems huge to the point of being irrational.

If a parent sacrifices their life for their child or a brother for a brother, people don’t turn them into martyrs and heroes. The sacrifice seems rational and reasonable because it is done for a very close genetic relative.

When a soldier sacrifices his life for his nation, he does so for many people. Many of them may not be related to him at all. To make his sacrifice seem worthwhile, the people of the nation turn him into a hero and a martyr. 

Deep down, they feel guilty that someone not closely related to them laid down their life for them. They pay exaggerated respects to their martyr. They’re infused with patriotism in order to compensate for the guilt they feel. 

They want to convince themselves and others that the sacrifice was worth it. Disrespecting martyrs is taboo because it brings guilt to the surface. This leads them to treat those who disrespect the martyr harshly.

A person can lay down his life for his country because they see their nation as an extended family. Hence, people of a nation call each other “brothers and sisters” and call their nation “fatherland” or “motherland”. Nationalism thrives on the psychological mechanisms that people already have to live in families and extended families.

When a nation enters a conflict, nationalism demands that people fight for the country and overlook local and familial loyalties. The constitution of many countries states that, in times of emergency, if its citizens are called to fight for the nation, they must comply. A nation can thus be seen as an extended family that exists to enable families living in it to survive and thrive.

Can multiculturalism work?

Multiculturalism largely means multi-ethnicities. Since nationalism is a way for an ethnic group to claim ownership of land, many ethnic groups and cultures inhabiting the same land is bound to lead to conflict. 

The ethnic group that dominates the land will try to ensure that the minority groups are oppressed and discriminated against. The minority groups will feel threatened by the dominant group and accuse them of discrimination.

Multiculturalism can work if all the groups living in a nation have access to equal rights, regardless of who has the majority. Alternately, if a country is populated by a number of ethnic groups, with power nearly equally distributed amongst them, that could lead to peace too.

To overcome their ethnic divide, people inhabiting a nation might need an ideology that can override their ethnic differences. This may be some political ideology or even nationalism. 

If a dominant group within a nation believes that their superiority isn’t under threat, they’re likely to treat minorities fairly. When they perceive that their superior status is under threat, they begin mistreating and subjugating the minorities.

Stress caused by this kind of threat-perception makes people hostile towards others. As Nigel Barber writes in an article for Psychology Today, “Mammals that grow up in stressful environments are fearful and hostile, and less trusting of others”.

When you understand that nationalism is just another form of “my group is better than yours” based upon “my gene pool deserves to thrive, not yours”, you understand a wide variety of social phenomena.

Parents often encourage their kids to marry in their ‘tribe’ to protect and propagate their own gene pool. In many countries, inter-racial, inter-caste and inter-religion marriages are discouraged for exactly the same reasons.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, I saw the first glimpse of nationalism in another human being. I had gotten into a fight with my best friend. We used to sit together on our classroom bench that was designed to accommodate two students. 

After the fight, he drew a line with his pen, partitioning the table area into two halves. One for me and one for him. He asked me never to cross that line and ‘invade his territory’.

Little did I know then that what my friend had just done was a behaviour that had shaped history, claimed millions of lives, destroyed and given birth to whole nations.


  1. Rushton, J. P. (2005). Ethnic nationalism, evolutionary psychology and Genetic Similarity Theory. Nations and Nationalism11(4), 489-507.
  2. Wrangham, R. W., & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.