Distinctiveness Defines Identity

Writing in the August, 2015, Scottish Banner, University of Dundee historian Murray Watson puzzled over having “failed to find a satisfactory answer” for why Scots’ Scottish identity is so much stronger than their English identity. It’s a phenomenon I, too, have noticed, not only in the current dominance of the Scottish Nationalist Party, but also in more mundane ways. When recording their nationality in B&B guest books, I’ve observed people from England responding “British,” while people from Scotland often respond “Scottish” (though the two groups are equally British).

Paul Mansfield Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Paul Mansfield Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

And Watson notes another example: England’s 53 million people outnumber Scotland’s 5+ million by 10 to 1. Yet the U.S. and Canada have, between them, only 9 English clubs (Royal Societies of St. George) and 111 Scottish clubs (St. Andrews Societies). What gives?

Social psychologists have an answer. As the late William McGuire and his Yale University colleagues demonstrated, people’s “spontaneous self-concepts” focus on how they differ from the majority around them. When invited to “tell us about yourself,” children mostly mention their distinctive attributes: Foreign-born children mention their birthplace. Redheads mention their hair color. Minority children mention their race.

This insight—that we are conscious of how we differ from others—explains why gay people are more conscious of their sexual identity than are straight people (except when straight folks are among gays), and why any numerical minority group tends to be conscious of its distinctiveness from the larger, surrounding culture. When occasionally living in Scotland, where my American accent marks me as a foreigner, I am conscious of my national identity and sensitive to how others may react.

Being a numerical British minority, Scots are conscious of their identity and of their rivalries with the English. Thus, rabid fans of Scottish football (soccer) may rejoice in either a Scotland victory or an English defeat. “Phew! They Lost!,” headlined one Scottish tabloid after England’s 1996 Euro Cup defeat—by Germany, no less. Likewise, report a New Zealand-Australian research team, the 4 million New Zealanders are more conscious of their New Zealand identity vis-à-vis the 23 million Australians than vice-versa, and they are more likely to root for Australia’s sports opponents.

“Self-conciousness,” noted C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, exists only in “contrast with an ‘other,’ a something which is not the self.” So, why do the Scots have a stronger social identity than the English? They have their more numerous and powerful neighbors, the English, to thank for that.