Saluting the American Flag – photo by Jeff TurnerCredit: photo by Jeff Turner

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, patriotism is difficult to define because there are so many differences of opinions among philosophers.  They seem to be divided into two camps: patriotism is abstract principles and ideals; or it is morality as a matter of various loyalties.   

From the psychological perspective, the definition is much clearer.  The average person defines patriotism as loyalty to one’s country.   Psychologically what is the root of this loyalty? 

Hierarchy of Needs 

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that one of the motivating factors for personal growth is the need to belong.   This need is usually first satisfied by belonging to a family.   As people age, the “family” expands and mothers and fathers are no longer the sole providers of safety and security.  As people grow into adults, they often look to their country’s governments as a surrogate provider of safety and security.   

Loyalty to a country is based in this need to belong; the need to feel secure and protected.   This need is rooted deep in the psyche.  Patriotism establishes a “we” connection that satisfies the need for belonging and attachment.  By establishing the “we,” a mutual enemy is established: “them.”   When the enemy proves to be dangerous, the “we” connection is strengthened and patriotism is solidified.  

In Psychology Today, Steven Reis, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Ohio State University, writes that there are three personality types that describe patriotism. 

  1. Loyalty to the clan or family in which the core motive is the loyalty to children and siblings.
  2. Loyalty to the tribe or nation in which the core motive is loyalty to parents and when there is an above average loyalty to parents there is usually a tendency to be loyal to an ethnic group or nation.
  3. Loyalty to species or humanity in which the core motive is compassion for people who are unknown; usually manifests as altruism and humanitarianism. 

Reis theorizes that patriotism is a common way to satisfy the need to honor parents by being loyal to their ethnic group or nation. Loyalty to one’s country does not necessarily mean loyalty to one’s president or leader.  The great Teddy Roosevelt stated “Patriotism means to stand by the country.  It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public office save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country.”  

American Flag and Fourth of July Celebrations 

There are many symbols that portray patriotism.  The country flag is the most prominent.  In the United States, as with other countries, the flag symbolizes more than patriotism.  It symbolizes strength, freedom, and history of the nation.  In the American flag, the stripes represent the 13 original colonies and the stars represent the 50 states.  The red symbolizes valor and hardiness; white symbolizes innocence and purity; and blue symbolizes justice, vigilance and perseverance.  

July fourth, Independence Day for the United States is one of the biggestPatriotic Parade – photo courtesy of the United States Army – photographer: unknownCredit: photo courtesy of the United States Army – photographer: unknown holidays when people show their patriotism.  Often starting with a parade, almost every town across the country ends the day with a huge fireworks display.  However, July fourth is not the only holiday in which people display their patriotism.  Many people choose to fly the American flag on Flag Day, Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.   

Regardless of whether or not some people see these as representations of patriotism, psychologically they are seen as such by most people.  Symbols further solidify a group. Again, these represent the outward displays of “togetherness,” and thus patriotism.  Other displays of patriotism include saluting the flag, standing with hand over heart when singing the national anthem and honoring military veterans.  While people’s opinions defer regarding how to display their patriotism; most people will define patriotism as “loving one’s country.”  



Psychology “Patriotism” – accessed June 23, 2010

Stanford Encyclopedia of – accessed June 23, 2010 



The copyright of the articleThe Psychology of Patriotism” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.