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22 May 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 5:09am

Punching above its weight

Gibraltar is one of the most fascinating territories in the world, and among the most interesting things about it is its habit of playing with the big guys. As the rest of Europe winces at the Eurovision Song Contest - in which the Rock isn’t competing – Dr. Lynda Shaw considers what it is about such a small place that gives it such high ambitions.  

By lynda shaw

Gibraltar. Arguably the most fascinating rock in the world with a thriving tourist industry, strong economy, self-governing, peaceful and in so many ways just like Britain but with great weather. Gibraltarians are fiercely nationalistic and frequently present themselves on the world stage amongst countries far bigger with greater resources. Is this naivety or something deeper?

To address this, let’s look at one facet of life on the Rock. The population is a proud people which is sometimes held to ransom by strict border controls. Time is spent trying to go about one’s daily life against a backdrop fraught with tension, anxiety and a feeling of vulnerability and uncertainty over who your friends are in the mother country. It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that people will dig their heels in and fight back.

A great illustration is that wonderful leveler the game of football, a perfect example of self-expression and national identity. Gibraltar scored its first goal in an international game just a month ago.

As a group, watching that ball being kicked or headed towards the net delivers a myriad of emotional experiences that are felt and identified by the individual as well as their players and fellow supporters. Their national identity was effectively being played out to gloriously show that they are different from the rest of the world, a potent body of people and not to be messed with. The young Gibraltarian Jonathan Lutwyche in “Britain’s Got Talent” played a similar card; he’s Gibraltarian, he’s British and he’s equal to anyone else on that stage.

National identity is as necessary and important for everyone regardless of the size of his or her country. It defines who we are. It shapes our behaviour and allows us to believe we have choices. This leads to a sense of freedom, which is a basic human need. It nurtures attachment, which leads to loyalty, another basic human need. Why is loyalty important? Because it facilitates social control, socioeconomic needs, a sense of safety and pride in whom we are.

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Social identity theory purports that we improve our own self-image by elevating the image of our group or in this case, country. Unfortunately social comparison often leads to hostility towards other countries, setting up a ‘them and us’ feeling. This in turn bolsters our own sense of importance.

Please take into account however, that this is a normal part of the human psyche and we all do it. If we consider something as fundamental as our surviva,l for instance, we need to belong, we need our supporters in times of trouble and hardship, so it is in our best interests to identify and seek inclusion. Co-operation and social acceptance are paramount to our lives.  

When we identify with our group or country we monitor how people feel around us, we notice what and how they say things, how they do things. This drives adaptation so that we behave and make decisions in accordance to

those with whom we identify. In so doing we are accepted. Of course, we can be thought leaders and occupy the driving seat, but we will always be mindful of not stepping too far out of our social norms so as to continue acceptance and perhaps opportunities for persuasion.

In terms of neuroscience, the incredible plasticity of the brain means that all repeated experiences and interactions change neurons and synaptic connections. Therefore, we constantly change our behaviour and perceptions and although we keep our individuality, we also flow and weave as a collective group. Cohesion at this level can be highly impressive.

Equally when we feel secure with a decent level of self-respect and self-worth we thrive as individuals. All those feel good brain chemicals will work to their optimum and we will be both physically and mentally healthier.

It is quite clear therefore, when it comes to well-being and when our country steps out amongst the big players – as Gibraltar does on the pitch, on the stage and no doubt readers will be able to think of their own examples – size truly does not matter.