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The more people felt understood by members of the other group, the more likely they were to trust and forgive them.

Feeling misunderstood boosts support for Brexit

Feeling misunderstood by other groups makes people more likely to support separatist causes like Brexit and Scottish independence, new research suggests.

The University of Exeter studied links between political views and so-called “felt understanding” – feeling understood and listened to by other groups, such as Europeans and EU institutions (in the case of Brexit), or the English public and politicians (in the case of Scottish independence).

The research also examined Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland and Basque-Spanish relations. In all cases, feeling poorly understood by other groups was linked to dramatically higher levels of support for separatism.

In the Basque study, people one point lower on a seven-point “felt understanding” scale (feeling less understood by Spanish people) were more than six times more likely to back independence.

However, “felt understanding” was also a unique predictor of trust and forgiveness – the more people felt understood by members of the other group, the more likely they were to trust and forgive them.

“Our research demonstrates the critical role of ‘felt understanding’ in relations between groups of people,” said lead author Dr Andrew Livingstone, of the University of Exeter.

“When people – individually and collectively – feel that those around them aren’t ‘getting’ their point of view, and if people feel they lack the ability to determine their own future, you get responses that are about ‘taking back control’.

“Such responses might, in large part, be about people making their voices heard.

“Voting is fundamentally an act of communication, though it’s not always easy to interpret what voters ‘mean’ by their vote.”

Felt understanding was found to be a stronger predictor of separatism than beliefs about the “out-group” (ie Europeans, English people, etc) or “meta-beliefs” (what people imagined the out-group thought of them).

It was also a stronger predictor of Brexit vote than more commonly-discussed factors like age or highest educational qualification.

Dr Livingstone said the research, which included data from more than 7,000 participants, showed the vital importance of making people feel heard.

“Even if people have been brought to a belief by misinformation, it doesn’t mean their belief is insincere,” he said.

“One of the worst ways to change such a belief is to tell people their views aren’t genuine, or that they are fools. 

“The first step is to ask people why they hold a particular belief, and to listen to the answer.

“It’s not about pretending to agree – it’s about showing them you’ve really listened and understood their point of view, even if you ultimately disagree."

Following the 2019 UK general election and the divisive debate over Brexit, Dr Livingstone noted the call from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “let the healing begin”.

“Boris Johnson had to acknowledge the fact that people want respect for the way they see the world,” he said.

The studies of Scottish independence, Brexit, Northern Ireland and Basque separatism did not address cause and effect.

This was tested by a fifth study in which young people in Spain saw one of two mock newspaper articles – one suggesting that older people understood them and cared about their concerns, and the other suggesting they didn’t.

Young people who were told older people understood them (higher “felt understanding”) reported more positive views of older people.

The research was partly funded by the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence.

The paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is entitled: “‘They Just Don’t Understand Us’: The Role of Felt Understanding in Intergroup Relations.”

Date: 9 September 2020

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