By Federica Calissano
Uncertainty is a condition that all individuals experience, and it is something that we all, to differing extents, encounter every day. There are some situations and incidents, however, that might elicit intense and long-lasting feelings of uncertainty in people. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us experienced uncertainty at a much higher level than we were used to. Job security, access to medical care, and daily routines all came under attack as governments worldwide sought to cope with the constantly evolving virus and the body of scientific knowledge that grew alongside it. For those who have experienced conflict, however, enduring intense trauma and uncertainty can be a common part of life.[i] Individuals from conflict-affected places who have, for instance, also experienced violence, are often subjected to displacement, and to a sudden and dramatic change in their lives, which can be accompanied by a dearth of information.[ii]
As part of the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, a multi-disciplinary team of experts at King’s College London is seeking to understand the factors that shape violent and peaceful behaviours in conflict zones. We know that uncertainty plays a role in shaping both social functioning and susceptibility to violent ideologies.[iii] In conflict-affected populations, where uncertainty is prevalent, it is therefore crucial to examine how this process takes place in order to help stop it.
What Do We Mean by Uncertainty?
When analysing the implications of uncertainty on individuals’ behaviours and decision-making, it is important to differentiate between the diverse theories around uncertainty, among which we can identify two prominent ones. The first is uncertainty-identity theory, a social psychological theory that focuses on how individuals perceive their roles in society. Individuals’ identities are shaped in significant part by the roles they perform in society, such as being a daughter or a son, a husband or a wife, or being defined by the job they do. When individuals experience losses in their positions – losing a job or a partner, for example – their identities are threatened, and they become unsure of who they are. This uncertainty makes them vulnerable to organisations characterised by highly defined in-group/out-group boundaries, norms, goals, and traditions; these groups hold significant power as they provide individuals, who are experiencing uncertainty, with specific identities. People’s choice of joining, for instance, an ultra-fundamentalist religion, or an extremist group, is indeed heavily influenced by their social ecology and group dynamics.[iv] Consequently, the core idea of uncertainty-identity theory is that individuals identify with social groups in order to reduce feelings and perceptions of uncertainty related to themselves, their identity, and future life situations.[v]
On the other side, research has largely focused on Intolerance of Uncertainty (IoU), namely a stable and permanent personality trait that, in contrast to uncertainty-identity, does not arise from specific circumstances or changes.[vi] Instead, individuals with IoU find strongly disturbing those circumstances where they lack the power to predict and control the occurrences around them, such as conflicts or wars, whereas they can conduct normal lives when able to exert control over events in their lives.[vii] This tendency has also been significantly related with diverse anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).[viii] Individuals with high levels of Intolerance of Uncertainty are more prone to engage in maladaptive behaviours – this is also the case with individuals experiencing uncertainty-identity – in the attempt to reduce uncertainty and to increase their control over the circumstances around them.[ix] Joining an extremist group or a cult can reduce this distress and difficulty due to the feelings of community, purpose, values, and coherence that those groups bring.[x] In the context of conflict, it is also important to note that experiences of war can create trauma which leads to more uncertainty intolerance, thus creating situations where people who are intolerant to uncertainty find themselves living in extremely uncertain circumstances.
What is the Relationship Between Uncertainty and Extremist Violence?
Research around both uncertainty-identity theory and Intolerance of Uncertainty has found that individuals largely attempt to reduce uncertainty around their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviours.[xi] They do not, however, always embrace positive methods to do this.[xii] Consequently, a new avenue of research has started investigating whether experiencing uncertainty, or having high levels of uncertainty intolerance, can influence individuals’ endorsement of extremist ideologies. This is particularly relevant when individuals are from conflict-affected areas, as terrorist and extremist groups can exploit the chaos and societal instability in these regions in order to acquire power and control, through recruitment of new members, propaganda, and the use of violence.[xiii]
While researching the paramount role of group identification, psychologists Hogg and Adelman found that individuals experiencing uncertainty about themselves were more prone to engage in criminal and extremist activities in an attempt to increase their feelings of certainty.[xiv] Another study similarly found that, when individuals are experiencing acute and chronic uncertainty, they can become significantly attracted to extremist groups and their ideologies, as the latter provides certainty around how an individual needs to behave and what to believe in.[xv] It is also believed that, when individuals experience a crisis, they can become more vulnerable and susceptible to new ideologies and beliefs. Wiktorowicz labels this process ‘cognitive opening’, whereby a personal, economic, or religious change leads someone to attempt to make sense of their life and identity.[xvi] Extremist groups can be attractive in these situations, as they provide individuals with a powerful and strongly defined sense of themselves, as well as with a rigorous structure and leadership.[xvii]
Uncertainty may play a crucial role in the endorsement of violent ideologies, and thus potentially of violent behaviours, as individuals are likely to become vulnerable to extremist groups in their attempts to reduce uncertainty.[xviii] This becomes even more relevant in the context of conflicts, where high levels of uncertainty may be prevalent due to the distressing and violent environments that individuals find themselves in, and where extremist groups are more likely to find shelter, due to the unstable and chaotic security and political situation. When deciding what interventions should be put in place to support individuals in conflict-affected areas, therefore, it is vital that policymakers consider the role that uncertainty may play in a person’s life. Yet, they should also note that uncertainty can manifest in different ways. Where someone has uncertainty-identity, interventions that help to restore a person’s role in society may be beneficial. If an individual has Intolerance of Uncertainty, they can be taught techniques which improve their ability to make decisions in moments of distress. Ultimately, however, policies at the individual level must go hand in hand with interventions to help improve the underlying socio-structural issues which cause instability and uncertainty in the lives of so many, such as in fragile and conflict-affected states. Together, this may help turn people away from violent ideologies and extremist groups and create a more secure peace.
Federica Calissano is the Operations Assistant on the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends (XCEPT) research programme. She is currently completing the Terrorism, Security & Society MA at King’s College London.
[i] Nickerson, Hoffman, J., Keegan, D., Kashyap, S., Argadianti, R., Tricesaria, D., Pestalozzi, Z., Nandyatama, R., Khakbaz, M., Nilasari, N., & Liddell, B. (2023). Intolerance of uncertainty, posttraumatic stress, depression, and fears for the future among displaced refugees. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 94, 102672–102672. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2023.102672
[ii] Nickerson, Hoffman, J., Keegan, D., Kashyap, S., Argadianti, R., Tricesaria, D., Pestalozzi, Z., Nandyatama, R., Khakbaz, M., Nilasari, N., & Liddell, B. (2023). Intolerance of uncertainty, posttraumatic stress, depression, and fears for the future among displaced refugees. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 94, 102672–102672. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2023.102672
[iii] Jonas, E., McGregor, I., Klackl, J., Agroskin, D., Fritsche, I., Holbrook, C., et al. (2014). “Threat and defense: from anxiety to approach” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. eds. J. M. Olson and M. P. Zanna, vol. 49 (San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press), 219–286; Hogg, M. A. (2012). Self-uncertainty, social identity, and the solace of extremism. In M. A. Hogg & D. L. Blaylock (Eds.), Extremism and the psychology of uncertainty (pp. 19–35). Boston, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.
[iv] Hogg, A. M., and Wagoner, A. J. (2017). “Uncertainty—identity theory” in International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. ed. K. Young Yun (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc), 1–9.
[v] Hogg, A. M., and Adelman, J. (2013). Uncertainty–identity theory: extreme groups, radical behavior, and authoritarian leadership. J. Soc. Issues 69, 436–454. doi: 10.1111/josi.12023
[vi] Carleton, R., Norton, M., & Asmundson, G. (2007). Fearing the unknown: A short version of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 21(1), 105-117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.03.014
[vii] Buhr, K., & Dugas, M. (2002). The intolerance of uncertainty scale: psychometric properties of the English version. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 40(8), 931-945. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7967(01)00092-4
[viii] Carleton, R., Norton, M., & Asmundson, G. (2007). Fearing the unknown: A short version of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 21(1), 105-117.
[ix] Shihata, S., McEvoy, P. M., & Mullan, B. A. (2018). A Bifactor Model of Intolerance of Uncertainty in Undergraduate and Clinical Samples: Do We Need to Reconsider the Two-Factor Model? Psychological Assessment, 30(7), 893–903. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000540
[x] Hogg, A. M., and Wagoner, A. J. (2017). “Uncertainty—identity theory” in International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. ed. K. Young Yun (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc), 1–9.
[xi] Jonas, E., McGregor, I., Klackl, J., Agroskin, D., Fritsche, I., Holbrook, C., et al. (2014). “Threat and defense: from anxiety to approach” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. eds. J. M. Olson and M. P. Zanna, vol. 49 (San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press), 219–286.
[xii] Hogg, M. A. (2014). From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 338 342. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414540168
[xiii] United Nations. (2020). A new era of conflict and violence. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/2020/01/un75_conflict_violence.pdf
[xiv] Hogg, A. M., and Adelman, J. (2013). Uncertainty–identity theory: extreme groups, radical behavior, and authoritarian leadership. J. Soc. Issues 69, 436–454. doi: 10.1111/josi.12023
[xv] Hogg, A. M., and Wagoner, A. J. (2017). “Uncertainty—identity theory” in International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. ed. K. Young Yun (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc), 1–9.
[xvi] Wiktorowicz, Q. (2005). Radical Islam rising: Muslim extremism in the West. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
[xvii] Hogg, M. A. (2014). From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 338 342. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414540168
This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.