Refugees arriving in Greece on boats with people carrying young children from the sea onto land.

HOW WE PERCEIVE THINGS IS NOT ALWAYS THE TRUTH

People often use strange and complex mechanisms to stop themselves from being confronted with awkward truths.

Dr Susan Watt
Psychology, Faculty of Medicine and Health

Dr Sue Watt and her collaborators conduct research into issues related to the tensions that exist between different groups in Australia – prejudice between one group and another, Australians’ responses to asylum seekers, the immigrant experience. More recently, they have turned this research on its head to investigate the effects of a warm welcome.

How we perceive things is not always the truth. For this reason, we need solid intellectual enquiry to investigate and tackle the issues that confront us. The false consensus effect is an example of common misperception. Dr Watt and her collaborators have shown that, in Australia, the more prejudice people feel towards another group, the more they tend to over-estimate how many others share their negative attitude. This is dangerous as it bolsters confidence among prejudiced people to express and act on their opinions. To combat this effect, the positive attitudes shared by the community should be shown and promoted, making it more difficult for prejudiced people to maintain the illusion that most others share their views.

People often have false beliefs about other groups, and this can feed negative attitudes. Common false beliefs are ‘asylum seekers are queue jumpers or ‘Aboriginal Australians receive a free car from the government’. Dr Watt’s research team has also identified that Australians who are highly prejudiced to Aboriginal Australians and asylum seekers tend to hold more false beliefs than those with less negative views. Disturbingly, Dr Watt says, they also found that false beliefs were perpetrated by public figures. ‘Myth-busting’ can be a good way to reduce prejudice and in current research, Dr Watt’s honours student Sonja Dawson is investigating how to ‘myth-bust in the most effective way.

People often use strange and complex mechanisms to stop themselves from being confronted with awkward truths. In one stream of research, Dr Elizabeth Greenhalgh and Dr Watt examined why many Australians were able to endorse harsh policies to asylum seekers, apparently without being disturbed by the implications of the policies for these vulnerable individuals. The research revealed two important mechanisms: dehumanisation and moral disengagement. By subtly dehumanising asylum seekers, perceiving them as not quite as human as oneself, people were more able to turn off their moral sensibilities regarding asylum seekers.

Much research has addressed racism in Australia. However, Yvette Alcott, a PhD student under Dr Watt’s supervision, has found that an immigrant’s racial background is less important for their reception in Australia than how they acculturate. Ms Alcott’s results showed that the one thing Australians reactto most negatively is when an immigrant uses the ‘separation strategy’. That is, instead of integrating or assimilating, the immigrant remains aloof from Australians and mixes mainly with members of their original culture. Australians greatly dislike this, but we need to consider why an immigrantmight do this. One dynamic is if they feel uncomfortable and unwanted when with Australians. In this case, they do not feel welcomed and turn to those who are most familiar.

Responding to this, Dr Watt’s most recent research, investigates the flip side of prejudice – the liking and welcoming of other groups. Dr Watt is looking at Australians’ positive attitudes to immigrants, including refugees, and how this might translate into a warm welcome. To complete the loop, her current research examines how this affects immigrants’ acculturation.

In the midst of this research program, Armidale has been recognised as a ‘welcoming community’ and has been designated a refugee resettlement region. If Armidale truly is the welcoming place described, the refugees will feel embraced by the community. However, this needs to be empirically assessed. Will there be pockets of resentment and resistance to the new arrivals? To address this, together with collaborators in Settlement Services International and Armidale Regional Council, Dr Watt will monitor Armidale community responses to the refugees during the first twelve months. This will provide an early warning system if rifts begin to appear in the community, allowing appropriate action to be taken.

Read more on our Social Psychology blog.

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