Today in the US, hundreds of millions will light fireworks, wave a flag, or don that red, white, and blue outfit they’ve been saving for the neighborhood barbecue. And, like me, many of them will feel a warm fuzzy glow in their chest that accompanies a more tender fondness of nationalism than is typically experienced on other days. My eyes tonight will likely water up as I squeeze my husband and think about how proud I am to be a citizen in a country where a more thorough wave of liberty for all is spreading across the land.
When I was growing up, that feeling of national pride was–for me–identical to the affective experiences I had within the LDS Church as a fully believing Mormon. When I went to do baptisms for the dead in the temple, or when I felt energized during a congregation testimony meeting, there was love and solidarity as a faith community that were reinforced through these experiences.
So indistinguishable, in fact, were the glowing feeling of patriotism and the Holy Ghost as I understood it in my religious observance, that I easily believed both were the Spirit of the Lord reminding me of the blessing it is to be a US citizen, or a member of the Lord’s true church. I even asked my Canadian friend Meredith during our freshman year at Brigham Young University if she felt disappointed spiritually to not be a US citizen. Naturally having no idea what I meant, I went on to share my testimony with her about the chosen nature of the United States that I had come to believe.
Increasingly, an abundance of evidence from multiple scientific disciplines reports the crucial role of a molecule called oxytocin in the longterm bonding with group affiliations. The causal links between oxytocin and relational bonding are multi-directional. In other words, releases of the hormone oxytocin modulate the physical circuitry of the brain to create a sympathetic bond of trust with the person or group that triggered the flood of the hormone.
Further, and arguably more interesting from a practical perspective, doses of oxytocin administered to individuals during controlled experiments create an increase of favor and generosity toward people who the research participant perceives to be part of their in-group. Research participants also more strongly exclude or punish people they identify as the member of an out-group in response to an exogenous bump of the hormone (administered nasally). Oxytocin in this cognitive-behavioral sense is a two-edged sword, relative to any number of personal improvement or moral systems in which universal benevolence and compassion are considered desirable.
How much of a beast does oxytocin doping make you feel toward a conditioned out-group versus how much of a teddy bear does it make you toward your in-group beloved? The behavioral experimental data, to my knowledge, aren’t refined to the point of being prescriptive in, say, couple’s therapy, or–oppositely–military conditioning. (Which is not to say oxytocin isn’t used therapeutically yet. It is.)
Speaking in evolutionary terms, once organic processes stumble into a functional system that increases the survival fitness of a species, evolution comes to reuse the system in multiple other functions that share parallel survival motifs. So at least in the cases of child to caregiver relations, sexual companionate pair bonding, and in-group tribal loyalties, the oxytocin system found multiple matches between dynamically conditioned relationships and expanding survival opportunities for Homo sapiens.
The holiday celebrating the declaration of British Americans’ independence from the crown is really, in a funny way, a nationally-orchestrated agreement to jerk our oxytocin system off as a country. If the goal is to augment filial stirrings of citizen loyalty to one another, it’s a good tradition to take care of that. Observing a note from biology’s playbook, maybe it would also be a good holiday to deliberately tend to any fault lines in national and ethnic identities between US citizens and members of the greater global community.
However you do it, have a happy and safe Fourth of July. And if you’re lucky enough to have waves of oxytocin flush from your pituitary gland at some point today, enjoy the sizzle of in(group)dependence as it works on your brain.