Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched

Conceived in literature, tested in psychology

The Great American Novel and the search for group cohesion


Steinbeck felt that the great story was the universal one. Image credit: Jill Clardy, Flickr, Creative Commons.

In the early 1800s, the United States was on its way to becoming an established nation on the global stage. It had won its independence, was forging stronger diplomatic and commercial ties with its European counterparts, and was expanding rapidly on its own territory. And it certainly didn’t hurt national solidarity to have the battle victories of the War of 1812 on the young nation’s side. The U.S. was playing with the big boys, and it wasn’t doing all that poorly.

Then came the American Civil War. Suddenly, the groups of interest had shifted. It was no longer “us” against “them” in the sense of America against the world. It was now us against what used to be us as well—but was now rapidly becoming a “them.” Even after the war’s end, the newly reunited country was more wary than it had ever been; after all, group antipathies are much easier to create than they are to eradicate.

But eradication is not impossible; it just might have to be achieved through more creative means. I wrote last week about the approach of the Robbers Cave study: the creation of superordinate goals that unite former rivals for a single cause. In that piece, I also promised to follow up on the research into group formation and solidarity: what works, what doesn’t, and how that can all play out in the real world. And what better setting for a view of group dynamics in play than early America, the days when the United States, while independent and thriving in many respects, was still far from having the sort of national coherence, solidarity, and pride that is so characteristic of a full-fledged nation—especially in the aftermath of its civil war?

There is nothing quite like conflict for creating quick group coherence. Muzafer Sherif realized that when he put his two groups of young boys in overtly competitive situations. The United States realized the same benefit with the Revolutionary War, the Barbary wars of the early nineteenth century, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War in the mid 1840s. But then, the dynamic got turned on its head: a civil war divided the same groups that needed—and urgently, at that—to be cohesive. What now?

The Civil War created the wrong group cleavages for a young nation. Image Credit: By Hal Jespersen, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

A common finding of psychology studies of group solidarity is that, when no real conflict exists, artificially created conflict can do the trick—and do it nearly as well as the real thing. Take something known as the minimal group paradigm, a concept that basically says exactly what it is: a way of creating groups, and cohesive groups at that, by using something as minimal as possible to tie them together.

One of the most famous approaches is known as the Dot Estimation Task. The setup is simple. You show a bunch of people some dots, be it on a computer screen or a piece of paper, and ask them to estimate how many dots they’re seeing. You then tell them—completely arbitrarily—that they have either under- or over-estimated the actual number. And then comes the kicker: you tell them that under- and over-estimation is a trait, and that they belong to a group of other understimators or overestimators, respectively. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

What happens next? Over and over, researchers have shown that under- and over-estimators start bonding with their fellow group members (and remember, not only is the trait nonexistent, but the division itself is bogus; people are randomly assignment to a group regardless of how many dots they think they saw), deciding in their favor over their out-group members (the other estimators), and generally behaving as if the division were a real one indeed.

Now, here comes the really fun part. In recent takes on the paradigm, psychologists haven’t just divided people into under- and over-estimating buckets. They’ve also given those buckets an (again arbitrary) social status. A 2006 experiment told participants that overestimators were actually more accurate than underestimators on the task—and that this accuracy seemed to relate to other tasks as well. Participants then rated both their own and the other estimator group on 24 unrelated traits and finally, completed measures of social esteem and social identity.

Not only did people evaluate their newly acquired in-group more favorably than their newly-minted competitors, but those who thought themselves to be of higher status (the overestimators) exhibited a larger bias than their underestimating counterparts. What’s more, the more positively the in-group was evaluated, the higher was the social esteem of its individual members—and the higher their subsequent social identity. And here’s the crucial part: social esteem wasn’t a result of intergroup bias as such; instead, it resulted from in-group favoritism, with enhanced social identity as a result.

What does that mean, exactly? It doesn’t matter how negatively you view those others, nasty and under-estimating as they may be. What matters is how positively you view your own group, how much you relate to your shared link, be it dot estimation ability or otherwise. And the more neutral the preliminary ground—no one, it seems to me, has any preconceptions or grudges about dots and their relative frequency on a page—the easier it is for that ground to suddenly appear common and inviting.

Is Moby Dick the GAN for all time? Image Credit: Gary Larson, The Far Side.

Now, rewind to America’s post-Civil War landscape. Something was needed to bring the country back together—and that something had to be a something that was neutral enough to make for quick and fertile ground for in-group identification, a special nineteenth century Dot Estimation Task, if you will. And that minimal group paradigm of choice emerged soon enough, as none other than the idea of the Great American Novel, or the GAN. Is it a coincidence that the concept of the GAN was born in 1868, just a few years after the American Civil War—or is there something more to the timing?

The GAN had no precedent. There wasn’t a history of Great National Novels, with capital letters, of one Great Work to unite a country. Plenty of great works had been written and acknowledged as such, but there had never been a rush to crown one of them the defining work of the nation that birthed it, for all time and all people. In that sense, the GAN was a first.

And think how clever was the choice of unifying matter: this group paradigm (for that, I would argue, is precisely what it was) wasn’t created on a point of contention, on anything that could reignite the old bitterness or enmity, anything that could serve as a reminder of national divisions. Instead, it was about culture, it was about literature, it was about overall national greatness of pen and spirit, a greatness that would define the country and set it apart from the rest of the world. It was, in other words, the perfect superordinate goal, to put it in Sherif’s terms. A single cause that could appeal to all alike, could be aspired to by all alike, and would, in its definition, contain within itself the entirety of the nation and its people (for that, at the onset, was the plan for the GAN: it had to be a great novel that was of national, and all-inclusive national at that, scope).

Consider, too, how the idea of the GAN was taken up and framed in the national discourse of the time. In 1915, Virginia Frazer Boyle was asked her opinion on the GAN. She was, after all, the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” no less. (As in, really, that was her title; the constitution of the United Confederate Veterans was amended to include the role, with the sole purpose of appointing Frazer to it.) In her estimation, the GAN would emerge definitively from the South. Why? Because the South could boast “the purest Americanism and the purest English speech in America.” It had “very little immigration” and was “remote from foreign literary influences.” In short, the people of the South had “kept [their] Americanism.”

While Boyle’s view flies in the face of everything that many consider the very essence of American—pluralism, diversity, meeting of cultures—today, just look at how it’s formulated: it’s “us” against “them,” the pure America, the purest speech, the most pristine position away from that nasty “other”, foreign influence. And in formulating her opinion of the GAN in such stark terms, she wasn’t alone. In 1916, the writer Robert W. Chambers (who happens to be directly descended from Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island) weighed in: “I think American writers should be encouraged to take up their work uninfluenced by foreign experience, teachings, and viewpoints.”

The minimal group paradigm, working like a charm. A common, American culture, against those tricky foreign influences. Writers whose main claim to greatness is their nationality and their ability to remain true to their national spirit, free from infiltration by the Other.

And while the GAN has surely developed since then, is it at all surprising that it was originally formulated as it was, not in terms of literary greatness but in terms of sheer Americanness? In a new country, with new prerogatives, the GAN accomplished something important. It may have been something of a necessity, even, a way of creating the essential group cohesion that had gone missing in the wake of extreme civil conflict. W. H. Auden describes the emergence of a distinct American voice as responding to “a feeling that the current modes of expression are no longer capable of dealing with their real concerns.” And that’s exactly what had happened. Not only was America a new country—and a democracy, a new form of government and way of being at that—but it was a country under threat of losing its identity, the group status and internal unity that was so essential for standing up to foreign influence.

Perhaps the reason the GAN never emerged in the Old World to begin with, why it is so distinctly American in its nature, is just that: there was never a pressing need for it elsewhere. There was enough shared culture and history to create national identity aplenty. And so, Great Novel was enough; it didn’t need to go further. (And how fitting that the only other GAN-like instances, according to Harvard GAN scholar Lawrence Buell, are the Great Australian Novel and, in the nineteenth century, a single Great Italian Novel: both cases of young nations, just created in the case of Australia, just unified in the case of Italy, who had to somehow define and assert their oneness and existence.)

Literature as a unifying national force: it’s far from a revolutionary idea. But tread with care. Unlike dot estimation, it’s not quite as innocuous; it can be very much the double-edged sword. Just think: the first ever contender for the status of GAN was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It also happened to be, in Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal words, that little book that was responsible for starting that big war.


Foels, R. (2006). Ingroup favoritism and social self-esteem in minimal groups: Changing a social categorization into a social identity Current Research in Social Psychology, 12 (3)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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