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Subjective Uncertainty Reduction through Self-categorization: A Motivational Theory of Social Identity Processes

Causes of radicalisationGroupsIdeologiesRadicalisation

European Review of Social PsychologyProposes a theory of uncertainty reduction which finds that when faced with personal uncertainty, people join strong groups.


This research proposes a theory of how people respond to uncertainty. Based on an overview of ongoing empirical research, which is discussed in the article in addition to some direct testing, the author finds that uncertainty motivates people to identify with groups, especially those which are particularly cohesive and which make clear (unfavourable) distinctions between members and non-members.

This move to seek certainty in strong group structures is most pronounced when the area of uncertainty is personally significant and the greater uncertainty was associated with clearer and distinctive prototypes (which make comparisons between members and non-members which highlight the positive aspects of membership as opposed to the relatively negative status of non-members).
While not about extremism or radicalisation in itself, the author suggests that this move to hide personal uncertainty through membership of strong groups can lead to membership of cults or violent groups.


A motivational extension of social identity theory is proposed: the uncertainty reduction hypothesis. Building on social identity theory and self-categorization theory, a subjective uncertainty reduction model of motivation associated with social identity process and group and intergroup behavior is developed and described. Contextually generated subjective uncertainty about important, usually self-conceptually relevant, matters motivates uncertainty reduction. The processes of self-categorization and prototypical depersonalization responsible for social identification and group behaviors are well suited to subjective uncertainty reduction; they contextually assimilate self to a prescriptive prototype that guides and consensually validates perception, cognition, affect and behavior. Group membership, social category-based self-conceptualization, group behavior, and intergroup relations are motivated by uncertainty reduction. Contextual uncertainty can be reduced by group membership and group action. This model integrates self-enhancement and self-evaluative motives into a single motivational framework for social identity processes. Derivation and explanation of the model recruits literatures on social identity, self-categorization, uncertainty, social comparison processes, self-motives, self-esteem, uncertainty related motives. sociostructural motivations, intragroup processes, intergroup relations, extremism, prototypicality, entitativity. social influence, and social change. Some direct tests of the uncertainty reduction hypothesis are described.

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