Coping with the threat of social change

Societies undergo rapid changes, may they be institutional or cultural. For example, the Netherlands has recently seen the rise of grassroot non-binary and transgender collectives demanding full-determination in affirmative gender care (i.e. Trans Zorg Nu), as well as of several initiatives striving for just transition away from fossil fuels and corporations (e.g. Future Beyond Shell)

Both heated debates and research suggest that people experience social change as threatening. This is intuitively expected from members of the dominant groups in society, but it holds true also for those belonging to the oppressed groups (see fear of freedom by Paulo Freire, 1968). To promote conscientisation and empowerment towards equality, it is key to investigate how people cope with the threat of social change and how this in turn affects their opinions.

We propose a psychophysiological threat-and-coping model of social change. Linking social, psychological, and physiological levels of analysis this model describes and explains the interplay between lower-level physiological responses, and higher-level information processing, to understand how people form opinions about social change. Moving beyond maladaptive physiological arousal (threat) we examine the possibility that social change can also elicits benign arousal (challenge) and link this to sensitivity to specific types of arguments (instrumental, moral, identity) and rigidity versus open-mindedness in opinion formation.

Our focus will be on systemic social change towards (vs. against) equality, and we will strive to unpack how a persons’ social status (oppressor, oppressed, authority; see political solidarity model by Subašić, Reynolds, and Turner, 2008) differently affect such coping mechanisms.



This research project is funded by NWO.