Author Biography

Patricia Andrews Fearon is a member of the IC Thinking Research Group based in the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, where she supports the research, design and assessment of IC interventions, which aim to prevent violent extremism, tackle sectarianism, and transform conflict. Patricia is also currently a member of the Emotion and Emotion Regulation Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Patricia holds a master’s degree in the study of religions from the University of Oxford where she researched the hermeneutics of religious extremisms.

Dr. Eolene Boyd-MacMillan is Senior Research Associate and Co-Director of the IC Thinking Group, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge.


Subject Area Keywords

Complex emergencies, Conflict studies, Psychology, Radicalization, Violent extremism


Over four decades of cognitive complexity research demonstrate that higher integrative complexity (measured by the ability to differentiate and integrate multiple dimensions or perspectives on an issue) predicts more lasting, peaceful solutions to conflict. Interventions that seek to raise integrative complexity offer a promising approach to preventing various forms of intergroup conflict (e.g. sectarianism, violent extremism). However, these contexts can also be extremely stressful, and dominant theory suggests that cognitive complexity diminishes in the face of high stress. However, we know that this is not always the case, with some findings demonstrating the opposite pattern: increases in complexity under high stress. How is it that some people in the midst of stressful conflict are able to recognize multiple perspectives and solutions, while others become increasingly narrow and rigid in their thinking? The aim of this paper is to integrate these divergent findings through the broader framework of the biopsychosocial model of stress and to explore possible underlying mechanisms such as affect. Implications for intervention will also be discussed.


Special thanks Dr. Iris Mauss and Dr. Sara Savage for their invaluable questions and feedback.

Recommended Citation

Andrews Fearon, Patricia and Boyd-MacMillan, Eolene M.. “Complexity Under Stress: Integrative Approaches to Overdetermined Vulnerabilities.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 4 (2016): 11-31.
Available at:

Journal of Strategic Security