Residents of Delaware believed on average that their state helped create 33 percent of the nation’s history. Georgians believed their state played almost as central a role, with 28 percent. Texans and Californians — two states famous for their braggadocio — ranked themselves at 21 and 22 percent, which was massive but nowhere near Virginia’s 41 percent and Massachusetts’s 35 percent.
“The question we asked is crazy in one sense, because there’s no correct answer, but it told us a lot about people and what they believe about themselves,” said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
What was universal was the self-aggrandizing view people have when it comes to their own states — a kind of communal selective memory and self-importance that psychologists are just beginning to study and have dubbed “collective narcissism.”
Even folks in state like Kansas and Wyoming — which weren’t part of the original 13 colonies or historical powerhouses — had outsize opinions of their role in American history.
When researchers added up the average estimations from each state, it equaled a whopping 907 percent. “We thought the numbers would be high, but not this high,” said Roediger, who studies memory theory.
He and the other researchers then had some participants first take a history quiz that emphasized the breadth of American history and the fact that there are 50 states. “We thought maybe if people had their face rubbed into U.S. history it would change the results,” Roediger said. “We thought they would say to themselves, ‘Hmm, none of this happened in Wyoming.’”
The prerequisite quiz had no effect at all.
To create something they call a “Narcissism Index,” the researchers compared the estimations by home state residents to how other people around the country ranked a state. Virginia and Delaware led the nation with the highest levels of collective narcissism, according to their index. New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia and New Jersey followed close behind.
The researchers involved in the state-by-state study attribute the seeming narcissistic behavior of residents to a few factors: that state history is often drilled into residents in school, that people are bad at math when it comes to estimating with small numbers, and a psychological tendency in people to think of themselves as better than average and to associate themselves with successful groups.
In a second study also published last month, some of the same researchers applied this approach on a global scale, asking residents in 35 countries how much their nation contributed to world history.
The results showed an even stronger phenomenon of collective narcissism at play. With 195 countries in the world, residents in every country surveyed had astronomically high estimations of their role in world history.
Even the residents in the lowest-ranked country, famously neutral Switzerland, believed on average that their nation contributed 11.3 percent to global events.
Relatively small countries had outsize estimations of their importance. Malaysians believed they contributed 49 percent of the world’s history. Portugal said 38 percent and Canada 40 percent.
Perhaps surprisingly, the United States — the world’s leading power in recent decades — landed in the middle of the pack, with a self-rating of 29.6 percent, behind Peru, Bulgaria and Singapore.
The leading narcissist in the world, according to the study, was Russia, whose residents on average believed their country contributed 60.8 percent of the world’s history
In recent years, psychologists have become increasingly interested in the intersection of collective memory, narcissism and the way it plays out in the real world.
“On some level, you could say this narcissism and collective memory is bad because it can promote racism, nationalism, xenophobia,” said William Hirst, a psychologist at the New School in New York who was not involved in the two new studies. “You might ask why Mother Nature even gave us this kind of memory. But there are advantages to it, as well. It is what promotes common understandings of our past, what grounds our identity as a country or people.”