Feeling understood makes forgiveness more likely – Study

Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, a research team led by Psychology Professor Andrew Livingstone from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom conducted a series of online surveys with 743 Ukrainians living in the Donbas region of Ukraine about their feelings of trust and forgiveness toward Russians, and how these feelings might be linked to the belief that Russians understand Ukrainian perspectives.

Despite the region having been the scene of ongoing armed conflict since 2014 when, at the same time it seized Crimea, Russia unleashed an insurgency that had taken some 10,000 Ukrainian lives by forces loyal to the so-called people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, Livingstone’s team found that as Ukrainians’ sense of being understood by Russians rose or fell over time, their willingness to trust and forgive – psychological and social states necessary for reconciliation – also rose and fell.

These findings are very similar to those from the research team’s previous work with Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the Basque region of Spain, the Shia and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, and other settings – the implication being that the feeling of being understood by the ‘other’ side may be a crucial factor that enables post-conflict reconciliation.

“What distinguished the Ukrainian study is not only the results we found, but also that it took place in the midst of an ongoing conflict,” says Livingstone.

“Often, social psychologists study the impacts after conflicts occur – rather than in the midst of them. Despite this, the Ukrainians’ responses to the questions we asked about in-group identification, the out-group [ie, the other side in the conflict] trust, felt understanding, trust and willingness to forgive were not dissimilar to what we found in post-conflict societies such as Northern Ireland and Lebanon.”

Northern Ireland

The research project took the same form as the one Livingstone and other Exeter University psychology professors Lucía Fernández Rodríguez and Adrian Rothers conducted in Northern Ireland in 2016: “‘They just don’t understand us’: The role of felt understanding in intergroup relations”, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2019).

For that study, they recruited over 1,000 Catholics and Protestants, divided roughly 60/40 to mirror the confessional percentages in Northern Ireland, and asked a series of questions designed to reveal each group’s view of itself and, crucially, their view of how the other side views them.

“Let’s say that you’re a Catholic: the central question is ‘Do Protestants get what’s important to Catholics? Do they understand Catholic perspectives in terms of their culture? Do they understand Catholic perspectives?’”

While the questions did not ask about how each knows about the other’s theological beliefs, they did include: “Do they get your beliefs? Do they get your perspectives?”

“One of the reasons for not trying to pin down what each side knows about the other’s religious beliefs,” Livingstone explained, is that “the importance of religious doctrine or rituals to these individuals vary enormously”. For many people, being Catholic or Protestant, he says, “are their social and political identities. They signify where you live and which group you identify with.”

Even more important were their findings about ‘meta-stereotypes’ – what you believe that the other side believes about you – and how sharing this information helped increase inter-group understanding.

Livingstone had a small number of Catholics and Protestants write up what it means to be a member of their community, emphasising what’s important for them, including how they viewed the ‘other’.

Then he had the groups exchange these essays. Reading them was not enough; he had each individual write a summary of what is important to the person whose essay they read. This was then given to the person who wrote the first essay.

The aim of the exercise was for each person to see how the other side views them and their mythological assumptions about the other side.

“We found that not only was the sense of feeling understood (or not) uniquely predictive of the feeling of trust and the willingness to forgive, it actually was strongly predictive,” says Livingstone.

“It was even stronger than the perceptions in the meta-stereotypes and other sorts of variables we controlled for, such as age and gender. The more people felt understood by the other community, the stronger the inclination to trust and forgive.” This factor explained 75% of the variance in trust and 36% of the variance in forgiveness.

To verify their findings, Livingstone and his team tested them in various other contexts. In the case of support for Scottish independence, for example, they found that the feeling of being understood by England strongly correlated to an intention to vote ‘No’ in any future referendum.

A survey of 861 British people a week before and a week after the 2016 Brexit Referendum produced similar results.

“Feeling understood or misunderstood by Europeans and the EU as an institution,” Livingstone told University World News, “was a really strong predictor of whether people reported having voted to leave or remain in the EU”.

The Ukraine study

The surveys for “How feeling understood predicts trust and willingness to forgive in the midst of violent intergroup conflict: Longitudinal evidence from Ukraine”, written by Livingstone, Kyiv School of Economics Professor and Rector Tymofii Brik; and Maria Chayinska and Evgeniya Bliznyuk (Corestone Group and Gradus Research), were conducted online by the Ukraine-based Gradus Research company and included men and women in cities with populations of more than 50,000.

Of the 1,000 original respondents, ranging from 18 to 60 years old, 743 completed the longitudinal study. A longitudinal study means that the respondents answer the same questions over time, in this case at three time points six weeks apart. The questions were answered on a five-point scale, with 1 meaning ‘strongly disagreed’ and 5 ‘strongly agreed’.

The first set of responses focused on Ukrainian identity, with such questions as “I feel strong ties to other Ukrainians” and “In general, Russians understand the values of Ukrainians” or “In general Russians have no understanding of the views of Ukrainians”.

The three statements grouped under the heading “Forgiveness” included one that asked respondents if they were “prepared to forgive Russians for their misdeeds” and “I hold feelings of resentment towards Russians for their misdeeds”. (Recall, this survey was undertaken before Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed the so-called ‘special military operation’ on 24 February 2022.)

The final set of questions concerned trust. The statement “Most Russians try to be fair” was balanced by the statement “Most Russians cannot be trusted to act in the interests of Ukrainians”.

Because this is a longitudinal study, Livingstone explained, more important than the results as a whole is what happens when individuals’ scores change over time.

“The average response on a given variable is almost identical at all three time points [ie, when the survey was filled out]. Within that, though, some individuals’ scores will have gone up, and others will have gone down.

“So people whose sense of being understood went up also reported increases in trust and forgiveness over time too. Likewise, people whose sense of being understood went down also reported decreases in trust and forgiveness over time,” he told University World News.

The importance of track II diplomacy

In terms of practical results, Livingstone believes that his team’s research both underscores the importance of ‘track II diplomacy’ and how it might be structured. Track II diplomacy, sometimes called ‘back-channel diplomacy’, involves non-governmental actors, such as NGOs and universities, in capacity- or trust-building activities that occur at the same time as more traditional diplomatic actors seek to manage conflicts and broker peace deals.

For example, 20 years ago in Cyprus, Brendan O’Malley, now the editor-in-chief of University World News, led a track II initiative to encourage the take up by both sides in the conflict of confidence building and peace building measures in education, among other things.

“The measures proposed included introducing education for mutual understanding and conflict resolution, as had been done in Northern Ireland; and sensitive role play and empathy methods in tackling contested accounts of history to understand the opposing group’s point of view,” he says.

Livingstone described his team’s data as “encouraging”.

“But we don’t want it to sit there in its splendour. We want it to be useful. We believe we have demonstrated a principle that tells us what might actually work in track II diplomacy.”

At the same time as then US senator George Mitchell chaired the meetings that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, Livingstone said, academics were hosting ‘problem-solving’ workshops involving political representatives from both communities. As much as anything, these meetings focused on enabling these participants to start to build trust and understanding with counterparts on the opposite side of the conflict.

Pointing towards George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution (named after the former US president and his wife), Livingstone says that universities can have an important role to play in fostering track II diplomacy.

Livingstone said: “Academics can take on a dual identity or role beyond that of being an academic practitioner. They can facilitate meetings between different parties in a conflict. Finding solutions to specific problems is good and as part of the process it is possible to use universities, their buildings, as ‘safe spaces’ where different groups can come together.

“It is important that representatives of groups in conflict have a place behind closed doors, away from the public negotiations [track I diplomacy], to meet.

“It’s behind-the-scenes work that builds a foundation for track I diplomacy. These include the problem-solving workshops that are facilitated by academics; they can form a base for conflict resolution.”

Trust takes a hit

The outbreak of full-scale war in the Donbas has cut off Livingstone’s communication with his respondents.

“Were we able to do a survey now,” he told me in a rueful tone, “I imagine that the actual levels of trust and inclinations to forgive would have taken quite a hit.”