Posttraumatic stress moderates return intentions: a factorial survey experiment with internally displaced persons in Nigeria

Peter Onah Thompson, Jonathan Hall, Tobias Hecker, and James Igoe Walsh

European Journal of Psychotraumatology, Volume 14, Issue 2 (2023)


This article examines the effect of posttraumatic stress as a moderator on the decision-making process of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria.

The analysis is based on data collected using a factorial survey experiment of 822 residents of IDP camps in northeastern Nigeria. The Boko Haram Islamist insurgency and the counterinsurgency operations by Nigerian and allied forces have led to the displacement of more than two million IDPs.

The analysis is based on data collected in January and February 2021 from 822 adult IDPs living in IDP camps in Borno State. Data was collected on age, gender, education, socioeconomic status, and exposure to violent conflict. Self-reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress were assessed using the six-item abbreviated PTSD Checklist-civilian version (PCL-C).

The design of the survey instrument was informed by focus group discussions with IDPs that revealed IDPs perceived NGOs positively and as a valuable source of information. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four vignettes, which varied the degree to which a fictitious NGO was knowledgeable and trustworthy. Knowledgeability was proxied by the location of the NGO (near or distantly located from the community) and the length of time NGO staff had worked with local conflict-affected communities. Trustworthiness of the fictional NGO was varied according to the degree to which the NGO was reportedly motivated by financial concerns or the interests of IDPs. Based on the assigned vignette, participants were asked about likely return intentions for a person “in the position of an IDP like themselves”.

Main results:

  • Over 58 percent of participants indicated that a displaced person like themselves would be likely or very likely to return, while 32 percent stated they would be very unlikely or unlikely to return.
  • Over 75 percent of participants screened positive for probable PTSD.
  • Credible information from trustworthy sources can positively influence return intentions.
  • Higher levels of posttraumatic stress reduce the effect of a more trustworthy source of information on return intentions.

The authors conclude that traumatic experiences during wartime can undermine the effectiveness of the provision of information from a trustworthy source about good conditions in displaced persons’ areas of origin. The authors suggest that interventions addressing posttraumatic stress could have downstream effects on safe, durable, and dignified returns.