Perturbation to Proud Boy: Understanding the Creation of Extremists Through Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Bennet Nast 

Extremism is a ubiquitous phenomenon transcending nationality, religion, culture, and time. To better understand why this is, one must consider the role of ambiguity in the human condition, most readily analyzed using Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT), Anxiety and Uncertainty Management Theory (AUM), and Integrated Threat Theory (ITT). These theories break down the roles that uncertainty, out-group suspicion, and intragroup communication play in understanding the other. Using them, one finds the rationale behind why people may prefer to reduce uncertainty about the other through discussion with their peers instead of cross-group communication. This exclusively intragroup communication leads to uncertainty reduction through an often hostile lens instead of a better cultural understanding, thus breeding animosity and further disdain for the out-group. Such animosity leads to extremist ideologies as what is “good” becomes assigned solely to the familiar while what is “bad” is assigned to the other due to its ambiguous nature. The human dislike towards the ambiguous and uncertain becomes transferred from abstract concepts to tangible agents in the out-group. The most effective way to prevent this is to engage in cross-cultural communication with the other which reduces uncertainty through understanding instead of scapegoating.  


Prejudicial and extremist organizations are everywhere. In the United States, there are groups such as the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, and Qanon. In India, there are Durga Vahini, the BJP, and the Khalistan Movement. In areas of severe unrest like the Levant, one sees some of the more violent examples in organizations like ISIS, Al-Nusra, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Even some governments condone extremist qualities like the current crisis in Iran and the Uyghur detention in China.  

All of these groups reflect inclinations toward extremist ideologies and practices. They come from different regional, political, economic, and cultural contexts and as such, suggest that extremist inclinations are not limited to any specific group—they are an aspect of humanity. There is something ingrained in the mind that makes extremism one of the few ubiquitous features of human societies. That thing is uncertainty. People do not like uncertainty, be it of the world, the self, or the other. It makes one uncomfortable and unsure of their environment. With this in mind, I argue that Uncertainty Reduction Theory and its offshoot, Anxiety Management Theory show that extremism is so ubiquitous because it is a more comfortable source for answers to their uncertainties about cultural outsiders, and others.  

After introducing the theories, focusing on URT due to its prominence and wide applicability, I will discuss how they relate to prejudice, ethnocentrism, and extremism. This will be followed by a look at David Frankfurter’s book, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History, a work that discusses historical examples of the human distaste for ambiguity that lead to extremist action. Finally, a simple, yet not always easy solution to this universal dilemma, will be considered. The unknown often begets fear—and fear can quickly lead to the very dangers it anticipates. 

Analysis of URT 

The first necessary step is understanding URT. Wood (2017) says “[URT] asserts that people find uncertainty uncomfortable and so are motivated to use communication to reduce uncertainty” (pp. 184 and 323). She writes further that this communication is used to seek information about a group and that one becomes more comfortable with the norms of a culture or social group through interacting with it (p. 164). This cross-cultural interaction allows for better person-centered communication and a greater appreciation for this other’s identity (p. 164). While informative, a deeper understanding of URT is necessary. Further analysis is provided by Redmond (2015) who goes into the history, elements, and axioms, of URT.  

URT was developed in 1975 by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese to explain the process of communication that occurs when two strangers interact (Redmond, 2015, p. 2). As time went on, however, URT came to be used in contexts of established interpersonal relationships and unexpected behavior in others (pp. 2-3). Quickly, the theory found applications in more aspects of communication seeing as the core elements apply to almost all human interactions (p. 2).  

Uncertainty occurs when there are multiple alternative predictions or explanations, it is the cognitive process where one considers the possibilities before them (Redmond, 2015, p. 4). There are then many varieties of uncertainty based on different contexts, all boiling down to the idea that one cannot know what another is thinking or what they will do no matter how close they are, and that uncertainty reduction itself is simply collecting information to reduce the number of possible expected variables (pp. 4-7). The last necessary piece of information regarding URT as a whole is in regard to its axioms. 

As axioms are statements that are assumed to be true from logical reasoning, they help to shed light on why certain aspects of URT are the way they are (Redmond, 2015, pp. 8 and 9). Three of these axioms are applicable to this argument. They are Axioms 3, 6, and 7 from Berger and Calabrese’s original study. Axiom 3 states “High levels of uncertainty cause increases in information-seeking behavior. As uncertainty levels decline, information-seeking behavior decreases” (p. 10). In other words, the more one thinks they know, the less they venture to learn more about a given thing. Axiom 6 states “Similarities between persons reduce uncertainty, while dissimilarities produce increases in uncertainty” (p. 10). People have less uncertainty about those they can identify with and more about those they cannot. This is where the other is created. Finally, Axiom 7 states “Increases in uncertainty level produce decreases in liking; decreases in uncertainty level produce increases in liking” (p. 10). The more uncertain one is about another person, the less they like that person. With these three axioms in mind, one begins to see the foundations of prejudice.  

Uncertainty is uncomfortable, this is the reason for URT. Axiom 6 thus effectively says that the less similar one is with someone, the less comfortable they are likely to be with them. Axiom 7 reinforces this saying that the more uncertain and thus, less comfortable one is around someone, the less they like them. Finally, Axiom 3 says that when one’s uncertainty is reduced, they stop trying to learn more. Wood (2017) wrote about how uncertainty between different groups and cultures, the other, is reduced and a greater appreciation for them is gained by interacting with them, a positive application of URT (Wood, 2017, p. 164). However, if the ability or more importantly, desire, to communicate with the other is lacking, one would only have those in their in-group to help reduce their uncertainty. Considering Axioms 6 and 7, a person is less likely to feel comfortable with someone they are uncertain about, someone different. Thus, they will be more likely to pursue information-seeking behavior with those like themselves. Considering Axiom 3, once they have gained enough knowledge, they are not likely to bother seeking it out from the others at all. As such, URT could be seen in behaviors that do not promote the kind of cross-cultural understanding that Wood (2017) describes but instead, in social bubbles that only give the illusion of certainty to those not willing or able to pursue it.  


Studies regarding this exact dilemma have been conducted in the past. Later in Redmond (2015)’s reading, he discusses Anxiety-Uncertainty Management Theory or AUM, an offshoot theory of URT specifically focused on intercultural interactions and their relation to anxiety and uncertainty (Redmond 2015, p. 29). Redmond (2015) writes that according to AUM, once a maximum threshold of anxiety and uncertainty is crossed, effective communication becomes almost impossible and when a minimum is hit, there is no longer enough “mystery” to warrant communication (pp. 29 and 30). This brief overview leaves room for other scholars. 

Neuliep (2012) writes that for AUM, the “stranger” is a central concept and that these strangers are approached with the same general processes of URT that one approaches someone of their own culture or group (p. 2). One would expect an offshoot theory to share core similarities, but the specialization of AUM is not the focus of URT. Instead, AUM focuses on the intercultural communication aspect of the primarily intracultural focused URT, as well as the management aspect of uncertainty once reduction is no longer the focus (pp. 2 and 3). In a sense, one could imagine URT as a tool like a chef’s knife. AUM would not be another knife, but instead an aspect of URT like the heel or tip of the blade employed for specific tasks. The task in this case being dealing with advanced uncertainty in intercultural contexts.  

Neuliep (2012)’s study looked at ethnocentric people’s established preference for intracultural communication and whether their uncertainty increases when involved in intercultural communication (p. 6). It found that uncertainty did indeed increase when they communicated with people of separate cultures, others (p. 11). Due to the anxiety and discomfort of uncertainty, some people choose to avoid intercultural contact, supporting the above discussion on URT’s Axioms 3, 6, and 7 (p. 12). In other words, Neuliep’s study showed that intracultural examples of URT, communities and mentalities of ethnocentrism, were detrimental to effective intercultural examples of URT. While the study was a proof of concept, ideas that intergroup communication could increase uncertainty for some were not new and are expanded upon elsewhere.  

Stephan et al (1999) examined such intergroup anxieties by comparing AUM and another theory, Integrated Threat Theory, ITT (p. 614). This latter theory is not an offshoot of URT but of the study of intergroup anxiety (p. 618). As such, it should be seen as a companion in this circumstance, like a paring knife to the aforementioned chef’s knife analogy.  

In the comparison, it was discussed that intergroup communication can increase anxiety and uncertainty which can then inhibit uncertainty reduction, ideas shared by both AUM and ITT (Stephan et al, 1999, p. 622). The main differences were simply due to AUM being focused on communication and closely associating uncertainty with anxiety (pp. 622-624). Regardless, the comparison showed that anxiety and uncertainty surrounding intergroup communication is well documented, leaving intragroup communication to be the more accessible alternative to some people (p. 624). This further supports the idea that because intergroup communication is unpleasant for some, they will turn to their own group for uncertainty reduction about the other. The consequences of this are well discussed.  

Uncertainty Reduction’s Use In Extremism 

People are always working to reduce uncertainty. As discussed however, the more productive process of intercultural communication is not always the most comfortable due to the inherent uncertainty of communicating with the other. This anxiety not only inhibits communication but also reveals a certain dislike for the other. This is shown in URT Axiom 7 with greater uncertainty resulting in less liking (Redmond, 2015, p. 10). It is then a cycle of uncertainty that strengthens itself by both preventing certainty and by taking the will to reduce said uncertainty—at least by learning from the other.  

This is expressed in its most dire form by suicide bombers. According to Savage and Liht (2007), extremist terrorists are immersed in tight-knit groups that supply uncertainty reduction not through exposure to the other, but through their interpretation of them (p. 76). Directly addressing URT’s role, they discuss how similarities and a relative lack of uncertainty between members of these extremist groups is exaggerated to make the group stronger and to demonize the other (pp. 85 and 86). It reaches a point where individuality is overlooked for the sake of group-identification, a tactic that not only increases liking, as per Axiom 7, but also provides dissociation from normally morally repulsive acts of violence (pp. 86 and 87). In other words, the manner in which extremist groups provide certainty also makes the violence committed on their behalf morally permissible. Murder may be hard to justify but killing for a righteous cause is far more palatable.  

All of this extreme behavior reinforces a strong “us versus them” dichotomy (Savage, Liht, 2007, p. 89). It shows the severe consequences of intragroup URT focused on understanding the intergroup instead of going to them directly. It not only establishes the other but reinforces the difference between them and the in-group. This exact concept is at the core of Frankfurter’s book Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History.  

Uncertainty about the other partially leads to fear of said other because of their ambiguous nature. If they are different, then they could be monstrously so, an idea that leads to fanciful intragroup speculation becoming the accepted truth (Frankfurter, 2006, p. 79). Frankfurter’s work focuses on how historical out-groups in relation to Christendom have been demonized due to the simple fact that they are not Christian. In sum, because the in-group must be “good”, those not a part of it are necessarily “bad” (Frankfurter 2007). The uncertainty surrounding the other was not reduced through interaction with them, but through discussion with leaders in the in-group, categorized as prophets, witch-finders, and exorcists (p. 32). By the standards of today, this mentality is extremism in its purest form. Thus, one sees URT employed effectively, but without intergroup communication. The problem is that instead of the ideal of greater intercultural unity and understanding that Wood (2017) proposed, it resulted in some of the worst oppression, violence, and mayhem in human history (p. 224).  

While Frankfurter’s examples are primarily historical, as has been shown, they illustrate an issue that humans always have, and always will need to deal with. As such, that brings one to modern considerations. The best one can do is avoid the path to extremism illuminated by URT. Instead of letting uncertainty and anxiety keep one from intercultural interaction, they should strive to follow the example Wood (2017) gives and search out intercultural communication in any way they can. While the internet has made it easier than ever to speak with someone across the world, it also unfortunately makes the extremist path easier to succumb to as well. One must avoid digital echo-chambers where only one viewpoint is discussed. It is in places like that where one can see malevolent URT in action. Dubbing dissenters simply “Snowflake” or “Trumper” can reduce uncertainty about an individual enough for some people, but forgoes the potential to actually understand them in an effective way. It is too easy, and one must always be suspicious of easy answers.  


Frankfurter, D. (2006). Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History. Princeton University Press. 

Neuliep, J. W. (2012). The Relationship among Intercultural Communication Apprehension, Ethnocentrism, Uncertainty Reduction, and Communication Satisfaction during Initial Intercultural Interaction: An Extension of Anxiety and Uncertainty Management (AUM) Theory. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 41(1), 1-16.  

Redmond, M. V. (2015). Uncertainty Reduction Theory. In English Technical Reports and White Papers (pp. 1-45). Iowa State University Digital Repository.  

Savage, S., & Liht, J. (2007). Mapping Fundamentalisms: The Psychology of Religion as a Sub- Discipline in the Understanding of Religiously Motivated Violence. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 30, 75-91.  

Stephan, W., Stephan, C., & Gudykunst, W. (1999). Anxiety in intergroup relations: a comparison of anxiety/uncertainty management theory and integrated threat theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23(4), 613-628. 

Wood, J. T. (2017). Communication Mosaics: An Introduction to the Field of Communication. Thomas & Wadsworth.  

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