When the status quo is upended, as in a civil war, people experience massive uncertainty. When the status quo collapses, there is no system to justify. But even short of societal collapse, the system-justification impulse can fail. What happens when the status quo is not just beset by uncertainty, but is itself the source of uncertainty?
That’s when things get ugly.
When we elect to join an in-group, we are also subscribing to its consensus reality, stabilizing our own lives within a communal understanding of what is true.
Identifying with an in-group is not simply a way to ascertain our place in the world; it selects and affirms the world itself. It makes the world real.
During times of great uncertainty, our need to make the world real and know what is true becomes much more urgent, and we can satisfy that need by immersing ourselves ever deeper in an in-group that offers a clear, authoritative consensus.
The social psychologist Michael A. Hogg found that feelings of uncertainty make people more likely to strongly identify with in-groups.
But Hogg’s findings go further. People who are experiencing uncertainty tend to assign a higher value to the in-group’s most distinctive traits, such as skin color or religious practice. They are attracted to in-groups with rigidly defined rules and boundaries, and to in-groups that are internally homogenous—filled with people who look, think, and act in similar ways.
More destructively, people who are experiencing uncertainty tend to develop hostile attitudes toward out-groups, seeing them as threats, and entertaining dark fantasies of hostile actions toward the hated other. Some in-group members may go beyond fantasy, engaging in acts of violence, terrorism, even genocide. They gravitate toward social movements that are bigoted, hateful, and authoritarian.
They become extremists.
During times of great uncertainty, the in-group consensus can become an overwhelmingly powerful anchor to stabilize reality. Conditions in the world might seem to be changing, but the in-group is portrayed as an island of constancy, a historical through line, a fortress. And woe to any threat perceived outside the gates.
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In some circumstances, an out-group’s consensus is understood to threaten the very nature of reality. To members of the in-group, such threats seem existential in the broadest sense. They undermine everything, attacking reality itself. Such threats must be crushed.
During times of low uncertainty, an in-group’s consensus reality can often tolerate contact and even friction with conflicting out-group consensuses, especially when the stakes are low, as in disagreements over the proper way to dress, or the correct way to prepare a potato.
The center tends to hold, until it doesn’t. From time to time, things blow up, unleashing violent extremism in highly destructive waves. The policy crowd has favorite explanations for these waves—unemployment, poverty, lack of education. At best, these factors play out in specific local arenas, but when you try to apply them globally, causality mostly falls apart.