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See Inside March / April 2011

Embracing the Radical: How Uncertainty Breeds Extremism

When in doubt, people shift toward extreme points of view

Feeling uncertain about who you are and what you want to do with your life? Such doubt may lead you to sympathize with \a radical or extremist group, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Groups that rally around radical beliefs may provide a searching person with the sense of self and social identity they are lacking.

Michael Hogg, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, and his colleagues increased feelings of doubt in a group of college students by asking them to write down several things about which they felt uncertain. The researchers then asked them whether they supported some very strong (some might say radical) responses to tuition increases, such as blockading the campus, rallies and vig­orous protests. The experimenters found that these uncertain students stopped preferring the usual moderate courses, such as holding meetings, printing leaflets and sending letters to news­papers, and they shifted toward favoring the more radical actions.

The results hint that organizations espousing extreme views may be especially attractive to people with questions about their purpose. “Some groups provide a more clearly defined sense of self,” Hogg explains. “These are the groups that seem from the outside to be a bit cliquish, a bit closed. At the extreme, you get groups that look like religious terrorist groups.” Helping people navigate through times of social change, therefore, by providing them with a strong sense of self and belonging, may help lower the risk that they will end up in extremist organizations.

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