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Feb 9, 2024

Youth & Truth in Northern Ireland with Dr. Jocelyn Dautel (podcast)

Empowering youth to think critically about the information they receive and share may help reduce polarization in Northern Ireland's historically divided society.

By Templeton Staff

Can empowering youth with critical thinking skills help reduce polarization and lead to an increase of human flourishing in the historically divided society of Northern Ireland?

Researcher Dr. Jocelyn Dautel is hopeful that if Northern Ireland can evolve beyond sectarian division, the country — and its youth — could serve as a global model of peace and reconciliation.

In 1922, after years of war against British rule, 26 of Ireland's 32 counties separated from the British government to form the Republic of Ireland. The remaining six counties in Northern Ireland, predominantly Protestant and loyal to Britain, remained part of the UK, creating a border on the island. Northern Ireland's population was predominantly Protestant Unionists, and the Catholic Irish Separatists faced discrimination and restrictions. Inspired by the US Civil Rights movement, Catholics organized marches in the 1960s. This was met with violence from British forces, sparking a period known as The Troubles. Over the next three decades, Northern Ireland faced intense civil conflict and bloodshed. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, a peace accord between the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland, was voted in. The agreement formally recognized Northern Ireland's multiple identities, enabling residents to identify as British, Irish, or both.

Decades after this vote for peace, young people still live at "a complex intersection of cultural, national, and political backgrounds, all linked to the historic conflict," says Dr. Jocelyn Dautel, an American researcher and Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. Dautel is studying how Northern Ireland’s divisions continue to impact the way young people consume and share "truths" about their nation’s history, and how educators are confronting their own beliefs and biases in the classroom. 

Listen to the episode with the player above to learn about Dr. Dautel's research project. You'll also hear from participating students and teachers.

Key Takeaways:

In Northern Ireland, "where young people are modernizing, they have new tools at their hand. They have information abundant to them, yet they're constrained by a long and complex history of conflict in society that might limit the information they have available to them across many levels of society," says Dautel. There's division in the institutions, segregation in schools, in towns. The education system is "divided, where there are different types of schools, and there’s also a division as to which history module the schools choose to teach," says Dautel. "Catholic-maintained schools tend to teach a history module more focused on a period around The Troubles in Northern Ireland, while state-controlled schools that tend to be predominantly Protestant, are split in whether they teach this module about the history of the Troubles, or potentially, a module that covers the period of the world wars in Northern Ireland."

Dautel, a developmental psychologist, and her research team are especially interested in working with young people in middle childhood through adolescence, a period important to the formation of their identities. This is a pivotal time where positive changes can be made through influence. "We're really interested to think about how young people who are being raised in this historically divided society can think about and evaluate the information that's coming into them in order to be what we call epistemically vigilant." Epistemic vigilance is a scholarly term that describes how humans use cognitive skills to discern information, discarding the information that after evaluation is deemed harmful or false. Individuals don't have to "just accept all of the information that comes in... they can choose which information they want to trust, which testimony they want to trust, and which they might have more hesitation with," Dautel explains. Her research project investigates the impact of encouraging young people to "be wary" and to "think critically about how they might seek out and share" polarized information.

One of Dautel’s studies includes having students from different communities that don’t historically mix share information with each other in a diffusion chain. "This is a fancy word for an experimental game of telephone," she shares. In the experiment, her team "gives one young person a polarized narrative—two sides of a story, then asks them to read it and recall it and pass it on to somebody else whose background is either similar or different in identity." The second person is asked to recall what the first person said for a third person, and so on, until there's a chain of four people. "At the end of that chain, we're interested in seeing how much of that original narrative is there. Does it become more or less one-sided? Does the polarization extenuate, or perhaps ameliorate based on who the information is passed between?"

Tune in to hear from educators Jamie Art and Ciarán Crudden, as well as students Blaíáithín Drain, James Hamber, Scarlett Murray and Robin Smyth.

Find out more about the related TWCF-supported research project.

Learn about TWCF's Listening & Learning in a Polarized World priority.


Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and producer Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.

Related Blog Post: 

Is ‘Truth’ as Objective as We Think?

Exploring the definition, development, transmission, and evaluation of polarized narratives at different levels of society, with a focus on youth in Northern Ireland.