Flagging difference: emotional responses to national flags

Flagging difference: emotional responses to national flags

We only need to watch international sporting events to see the strong positive emotions associated with national flags.  However, we also know that flags can be divisive, especially in societies affected by conflict and where the nation itself is contested. This week,  Orla Muldoon, Karen Trew and Paula Devine write about their work exploring how flags have been an ongoing source of contention in Northern Ireland, as they are seen expressions of identity for opposing groups.  Concerns about how to address the issues of flags prompted the establishment of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition in 2016. 

Our research focused on the emotional responses to flags and how they are associated with national identity in Northern Ireland, using the 2007 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey.  NILT is an annual survey exploring public attitudes to key social policy issues.  We asked a random sample of 1,179 adult respondents to rate how annoyed, hopeful, satisfied or uneasy they felt about images to different flags and emblems.  Full details on the methods we used are available in an article recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Traditionally, there were two main national identities in Northern Ireland, each associated with a national flag: British, which is associated with the Union flag (Union Jack), and Irish (associated with the Irish Tricolour).  In 2007, 39% of people taking part in NILT described themselves as British, 29% as Irish, and 25% as Northern Irish.  However, there is no specific national flag associated with this latter identity. 

We found that the strongest emotional responses related to flags associated with the respondent’s own group. For example, people saying that they were British reported the highest levels of hopefulness and satisfaction in response to images of the Union Jack, whilst Irish identifiers reported the highest level of hope and satisfaction in response to images of the Irish Tricolour.  As we imagined, the strongest emotions were expressed by those with the strongest sense of national identity.  This supports the idea that emotions are not just personal but are linked to our sense of ourselves as group members.

One key finding is that the respondents who saw themselves as British expressed more negative emotions than those who saw themselves as Irish or Northern Irish. We believe this reflects the politics of the time and the changing status of the national groups within Ireland and the UK in relation to each other.  It may also be linked to a sense that often arises in the aftermath of polarised conflict that there must be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Therefore, our research suggests that there is a need to manage the potential for emotional responding, particularly amongst those who may see their group as having lost ground, in order to maintain good relations in the aftermath of conflict.

Another notable finding is the complexity of emotional responses.  Just as we can hold many different identities at the same time, our research showed that we can have positive and negative emotions towards one flag. 

The research is important as people’s actions are based not only on what we think, but also on how we feel towards our own and other groups.  And we can see that flags are everyday social primes that cause some people to have spontaneous feelings, often outside their conscious awareness, that in subtle ways may impact community relations. And the distinctive reactions associated with religious group membership to the everyday symbols that flags are in Northern Ireland are likely to be a driver of conflict and a barrier to peace.

This research was funded by the ESRC, Award ES/E007473/1. This post is the first in our Spotlight on Conflict Research Series, which will be running on throughout the month of March. 


About the Authors:

Professor Orla Muldoon is head of the Department of Psychology in the University of Limerick and research psychologist interested in applying psychological theory and methods to enhance understanding of everyday social phenomena. Through her work she seeks to explore solutions to real-world social problems.  She is particularly interested in social identity approach to understanding health and human behaviour.

Dr Karen Trew was a Reader in the School of Pyschology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests and publications continue to be linked by efforts to relate academic scholarship with practice and policy especially in relation to community relations over time.

Dr Paula Devine is Co-Director of ARK, which is a joint initiative of Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University whose goal is to increase the accessibility and use of academic data and research. She is based in Queen’s University Belfast, and is Director of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey – an annual survey exploring public attitudes to key social issues.

Photo credit: Andrew – St. Patrick’s Day By The Mersey –