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本文作者为华威大学华威商学院行为科学教授Nick Chater

Ask any of the few remaining World War IIveterans what they did during the war and you’re likely to get a humble answer.But ask the person on the street how important their country’s contribution tothe war effort was and you’ll probably hear something far less modest. A newstudy suggests people from Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on average allthink their own country shouldered more than half the burden of fighting WorldWar II.


Our national collective memories seem to bedeceiving us, and this is part of a far more general pattern. Aside from thoseveterans who have no desire to revel in the horrors of war, we may have ageneral psychological tendency to believe our contributions are moresignificant than they really are.


A sceptic might note that “contributing toworld history” is a rather nebulous idea, which each nation can interpret toits advantage. (The Italians, at 40%, might focus on the Romans and theRenaissance, for example.) But what about our responsibility for specific worldevents? The latest study from Roediger’s lab addresses the question of nationalcontributions to World War II.


The researchers surveyed people from eightformer Allied countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, New Zealand,Russia/USSR, the UK and the US) and three former Axis powers (Germany, Italyand Japan). As might be expected, people from the winning Allied side rankedtheir own countries highly, and the average percentage responses added up to309%. Citizens of the UK, US and Russia all believed their countries hadcontributed more than 50% of the war effort and were more than 50% responsiblefor victory.


World War II deaths by country. How wouldyou work out which country contributed the most?


You might suspect that the losing Axispowers, whose historical record is inextricably tied to the immeasurable humansuffering of the war, might not be so proud. As former US president John FKennedy said (echoing the Roman historian Tacitus): “Victory has a hundredfathers and defeat is an orphan.” Perhaps the results for the Allied countriesjust reflect a general human tendency to claim credit for positiveachievements. Yet citizens of the three Axis powers also over-claim shares ofthe war effort (totalling 140%). Rather than minimising their own contribution,even defeated nations seem to overstate their role.


Why? The simplest explanation is that wepiece together answers to questions, of whatever kind, by weaving togetherwhatever relevant snippets of information we can bring to mind. And thesnippets of information that come to mind will depend on the information we’vebeen exposed to through our education and cultural environment. Citizens ofeach nation learn a lot more about their country’s own war effort than those ofother countries. These “home nation” memories spring to mind, and a biaseduation is the inevitable result.


Still, the tendency to overplay our own andour nation’s role in just about anything seems all too plausible. We seehistory through a magnifying glass that is pointing directly at ourselves. Welearn the most about the story of our own nation. So our home nation’s effortsand contributions inevitably spring readily to mind (military and civiliandeaths, key battles, advances in technology and so on). The efforts andcontributions of other nations are sensed more dimly, and often not at all.


And the magnifying glass over our effortsis pervasive in daily life. I can find myself thinking irritably, as I unloadthe dishwasher, “Well, I don’t even remember the last time you did this!” Butof course not. Not because you didn’t do it, but because I wasn’t there.