Uncertainty and Extremism
- Sucharita BelavadiSucharita BelavadiDepartment of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University
Uncertainty regarding the self—about who we are, our place in the world, and our future is typically an unsettling and aversive state. It is a state that we are motivated to reduce in order to gain predictability over events in the world around us. One of the most effective ways of managing uncertainty regarding the self is by seeking group memberships and belonging to groups. Thus, uncertainty reduction can be construed as a drive, such that we join and identify with groups in order to manage uncertainty about and related to the self; this is the core tenet of uncertainty-identity theory, which discusses uncertainty reduction as one of the motives for seeking group memberships.
Previous work in uncertainty-identity theory has shown that when uncertain about the self, individuals seek highly entitative groups to identify with. Such groups are characterized by clear, distinct boundaries—a clear sense of what the group stands for while spelling out who we are versus who we are not. Highly entitative groups have interdependent members and a clear sense of identity that is distinct from those of other groups. According to uncertainty-identity theory, identifying with such groups can reduce self-uncertainty, as individuals can define the self in terms of a clear, distinct prototype and manage uncertainty regarding who they are. Research in uncertainty-identity theory shows that when uncertain, group members perceptually polarize their group away from the outgroup in order to enhance the perceived entitativity and distinctiveness of their group prototype relative to other groups. Thus, the group moves to an extreme and polarized position that is far removed from that of an outgroup with the need to fashion a distinctive identity. The preference for a clearly defined and highly entitative social identity that helps delineate who we are versus who we are not when group members are self-uncertain should increase group members’ vulnerability to ingroup rhetoric that emphasizes the distinctiveness of group boundaries and an us versus them thinking. This is a dangerous trend, especially in the context of intergroup conflict, as influential group members, such as leaders, might seek to mobilize group members by demonizing outgroup members while attributing suffering and unpredictability experienced by ingroup members to the actions of outgroup members. Thus, gaining an understanding of the processes through which the uncertainty of group members is exploited to mobilize support for extreme ideologies might be one way to explain extremism and radical behavior by groups.