Seeing widespread political polarization and violent conflict between groups each day in the news, it’s easy to conclude that our world is becoming more divided. Our recent research has focused on a key psychological factor that helps to explain divisions between groups and how those divisions might be overcome: our perceptions of whether or not “they” (members of another group) understand “us.” We call this felt understanding.

In contexts ranging from Brexit in the U.K. to post-conflict settings such as Northern Ireland and the Basque region, our findings indicate that divisions between groups are heightened when people feel that their side is misunderstood by others—that members of the other group “don’t get us.”  But, when people do feel understood by another group, they report greater trust, less support for political separatism, and greater willingness to forgive the other side following violent conflict.

What is felt understanding, and why is it important?

When it comes to relations between groups, felt understanding is the belief that members of another group (an outgroup) understand the perspectives of members of a group to which we belong (an ingroup). This includes understanding our beliefs, values, experiences, and identity. We might express “felt understanding” in everyday language through statements such as “they hear us,” “they understand what we’re going through,” or, when felt understanding is low, “they don’t know what’s important to us.”

The importance of felt understanding lies in how it affects our fundamental concern for whether other people can see things from our perspective. Whereas much research has examined the positive impact of taking the perspective of other people (often termed “empathy”), felt understanding focuses instead on whether we think that others understand our perspective; in other words, do they empathize with us?

Various approaches in cognitive, clinical, evolutionary, and humanistic psychology suggest that perceiving that other people “get” us is crucial in many ways. For example, evidence clearly shows that when we feel understood in a close relationship, we feel more joy and relief, and are more satisfied both with the relationship and with life in general. Evidence even shows that when we feel understood, we are more resilient to stressors such as physical pain.

Felt understanding in relations between groups

We know that feeling understood is important in our personal lives, but is it also important when it comes to relationships between groups of people? Our research examined whether the impact of feeling understood affects intergroup relationships—that is, relationships between large-scale social groups.

In one study, we surveyed nearly 900 British nationals one week before the 2016 Brexit referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the European Union (EU). We then asked them one week after the referendum whether they had voted to leave or remain in the EU.

We found that felt understanding—measured in terms of whether respondents thought that Europeans and/or the EU understood the perspectives of British people—was strongly related to people’s trust in the EU, as well as to how people actually voted. The more misunderstood people felt, the less they trusted the EU, and the greater the likelihood that they voted for Brexit.

Another survey of more than 5,000 Scottish adults found a similar pattern regarding support for Scottish national independence from the U.K.  The more misunderstood respondents felt by U.K. politicians, the less they trusted the U.K., and the greater their intentions to vote for independence for Scotland.

We also examined whether felt understanding predicts positive outcomes following violent intergroup conflict. In a survey of more than 1,000 Protestant and Catholic people in Northern Ireland, respondents who felt more understood by the other community trusted the other side more and were more willing to forgive violent actions during the decades-long conflict known as the “Troubles.”

A fourth survey focused on the Basque region of Spain, another place that has experienced a violent separatist struggle. Once more, feeling misunderstood—by the Spanish state in this case—predicted less trust in the Spanish state and a much stronger intention to vote for Basque political independence.

Another study then directly tested whether feeling understood actually causes these kinds of positive effects.  In this study, we had young people in Spain read one of two mock newspaper articles—one suggesting that older people understood their concerns, and the other suggesting they didn’t.  Those young people who were told that older people understood them (who experienced higher “felt understanding”) reported more positive views of older people compared with those who were told that older people did not understand them.

As we face a world that often feels increasingly divided between “us” and “them,” our findings are a reminder that group members are often concerned with how their beliefs, values, experiences, and identity are perceived and understood by members of other groups. Fostering the feeling of being understood may play a crucial role as we seek to heal social divisions.

For Further Reading

Livingstone, A. G., Fernández Rodríguez, L., & Rothers, A. (2020). ‘They just don’t understand us’: The role of felt understanding in intergroup relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119, 633-656.

Andrew Livingstone is a social psychologist who studies intergroup relations, emotion, and collective action. He is based at the University of Exeter, UK.