Meaning maintenance model
Psychlopedia -- Key theories -- Affective theories -- Meaning maintenance model
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Sometimes, the world does not seem meaningful, coherent, or predictable, but instead appears erratic, inconsistent, and futile. Interestingly, after individuals perceive the world as inconsistent or futile, they can more readily detect patterns.
This observation, and several other findings, can be explained by the meaning maintenance model. This model begins with a simple premise--a premise that many theories assume--that individuals like to perceive the world as meaningful and predictable. Concepts like cognitive dissonance cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) and need for closure or structure (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996; Neuberg & Newsom, 1993) attest to this inclination.
The meaning maintenance model extends this premise (Proulx & Heine, 2006, 2008, 2009). In particular, according to this model, whenever one meaning framework is threatened--that is, whenever some ideology, philosophy, or belief system that imparts clarity and purpose is challenged--individuals seek meaning from other means or associations. They might, for example, advocate an alternative framework or philosophy.
Consequently, cognitive mechanisms that uncover associations between events, and thus clarify meaning, are activated whenever meaning frameworks are threatened. For example, after a sense of meaning is challenged, individuals can more readily identify novel patterns in complex events (Proulx & Heine, 2009; for criticisms of the meaning maintenance model, see Pyszcynski, Greenberg, Solomon, & Maxfield, 2006).
Some authors have speculated on states that mediate the association between threats to meaning and attempts to reinforce meaning. Proulx and Heine (2008), for example, maintain that arousal might mediate this relationship.
Sources of meaning
Heine, Proulx, and Vohs (2006) delineated four primary sources of meaning: self esteem, sense of closure, feeling of belonging, or symbolic immortality. First, if meaning is impeded, individuals often attempt to inflate their self esteem. That is, they like to perceive themselves as more worthy and competent--a perception that instills a sense of meaning.
Second, if meaning is compromised, individuals might instead attempt to instill a sense of certainty. That is, they attempt to construct firm conclusions, manifesting as a need for closure. This certainty is integral to meaning. Third, if meaning is impeded, individuals might instead boost their affiliation with other people. Social relationshipsalso confer a sense of meaning. Finally, to reinstate a sense of meaning, individuals also attempt to cultivate a sense of symbolic immortality. That is, they strive to conceptualize their lives as pertinent to some enduring cause or pursuit. They want to feel their contributions will be recognized after they die.
Affirmation of moral values
As Randles, Proulx , and Heine (2010) showed, when meaning is threatened, individuals often attempt to affirm other moral values. That is, these moral values represent a source of meaning. Hence, when individuals direct their attention to moral values, a sense of meaning is restored.
To illustrate, in one study, some participants were exposed to subliminal pairs of words that were unrelated to each other, like "turn frog" or "bull left"--an incongruence that often threatens meaning. Next, they were asked to specify the amount of bail they feel should be set for a prostitute who had been arrested. If participants had been exposed to incongruent pairs of words, they subsequently recommended a higher bail. That is, they become more inclined to perceive prostitution as immoral and thus penalize the perpetrator accordingly.
According to the meaning maintenance model, when a sense of meaning, clarity, or predictability is compromised, the capacity of individuals to uncover patterns improves. In one study, participants described two events: one in which they seemed outgoing and another in which they seemed shy (Proulx & Heine, 2009). Then, to curb a sense of meaning and coherence, some participants wrote about how these events show they comprise two distinct selves, inhabiting the same body. In the control condition, to elicit a sense of meaning and coherence, other participants who about how, despite some variations across events, they remain a unified self.
Next, participants were exposed to 45 strings of 8 letters, like X M X R T V T M. Unbeknownst to participants, these arrangements conform to specific rules. For example, some letters were likely to follow other letters, and so forth. Participants were asked to copy these letters. Next, a series of additional strings of 9 letters were presented. Participants were asked which of these additional strings conform to the pattern of the previous strings. Often, participants can distinguish strings that conform to this pattern and strings that do not conform to this pattern, even when they cannot explain their responses, called implicit learning.
Relative to the other participants, the individuals who reflected upon how their self is divided--which could challenge one form of coherence or meaning--showed more proficient implicit learning. They could readily distinguish between strings that conform to the pattern and strings that do not conform to the pattern (Proulx & Heine, 2009).
Thus, when a meaning framework, in this instance the belief in a unified self, is challenged, mechanisms that uncover other associations or regularities are evoked. Hence, implicit meaning improves.
In another study, a different procedure was used to threaten the meaning frameworks of individuals. Some participants read an excerpt from "The Country Doctor", written by Kafka, which comprised many bizarre episodes and non sequiturs, which are responses that do not follow logically from the previous sentence. Other participants read a similar excerpt, but devoid of these absurd meanderings. Exposure to the absurdist excerpt facilitated implicit learning (Proulx & Heine, 2009).
Interestingly, this meaningless excerpt improved implicit learning without affecting the accessibility of words related to death, as gauged by a word completion task (Proulx & Heine, 2009). Hence, meaning maintenance does not merely reflect a defense mechanism in response to mortality salience.
Hicks, Schlegel, and King (2010) showed that positive affect might also represent a source of meaning, perhaps similar to the effects of self esteem. That is, when meaning is threatened, positive affect is positively associated with a sense of meaning. For example, when individuals feel excluded--a feeling that compromises meaning--the association between positive affect and meaning increases.
This possibility was substantiated by Hicks, Schlegel, and King (2010). In this study, participants first completed a scale that assesses whether or not they are satisfied with their relationships. Next, some participants were incidentally exposed to words that elicit loneliness, such as alone, outcast, isolated, and abandoned. Other participants were not exposed to these words. Finally, the level of positive and negative affect as well as the degree to which individuals perceive their life as meaningful was gauged, with questions like "My personal existence is very purposeful and meaningful".
As expected, positive affect was positively associated with meaning in life. More importantly, this association was more pronounced after individuals had been exposed to words that revolve around loneliness. In other words, when one source of meaning is threatened, such as the need to belong, positive affect might compensate (Hicks, Schlegel, & King, 2010).
A key assumption of the meaning maintenance model is that threats to one source of meaning can be compensated by bolstering other sources of meaning. When individuals feel that meaning has been compromised, they may attempt to bolster their self esteem, sense of closure, feeling of belonging, or symbolic immortality, for example.
Van Tongreen and Green (2010) showed that even unconscious threats to meaning can evoke this compensation. In one study, some participants were subliminally exposed to words that relate to meaninglessness, such as pointless, random, and unimportant--intended to evoke the sense that meaning has been obstructed. Other participants were not exposed to these words. Next, mood and accessibility of words related to death were assessed. Finally, participants completed questions that assess the extent to which they perceive their life as meaningful, infused with purpose, as well as the degree to which they regard themselves as religious or spiritual.
Interestingly, after participants were exposed to words that represent meaningless, they perceived their life as more meaningful and were more inclined to espouse religious beliefs or spirituality. Presumably, when meaningless is primed, individuals feel the need to compensate: They strive to perceive their life as meaningful and embrace a system that instills meaning, like religion (Van Tongreen & Green, 2010).
The second study was similar, except participants were also asked to complete questions about their self esteem, need to belong, need for closure, and symbolic immortality after meaningless was primed. To gauge symbolic immortality, individuals answered questions about whether their accomplishments will persist after they die. Relative to participants assigned to the control conditions, participants exposed to words that relate to meaningless maintained their self esteem, need for closure, and symbolic immortality were elevated whereas need to belong diminished. Accordingly, when meaning is threatened, individuals boost the four sources of meaning (Van Tongreen & Green, 2010). However, meaningless also curbed the likelihood that individuals believe they need to seek meaning--to convince themselves such meaning has already been uncovered.
Hicks, Schlegel, and King (2010) also verified that impediments to one source of meaning also curbs the perceived importance of that particular source. In this study, participants first completed a scale that gauges whether or not they are satisfied with their relationships. Then, some participants were incidentally exposed to words that elicit loneliness, such as alone and outcast. Other participants were not exposed to these words. Finally, the extent to which individuals perceive their life as meaningful was assessed.
Unsurprisingly, the degree to which participants felt satisfied with their relationships was positively associated with meaning in life. This association, however, diminished after the individuals were exposed to words that relate to loneliness. Thus, when this source of meaning is threatened, bolstering this source did not reinstate this meaning.
An abstract construal increases the likelihood of compensation
According to the meaning maintenance model, as well as many other theories such as self-affirmation theory, to override the effects of threats, individuals do not need to restore the characteristic that was threatened. For example, if their relationships are threatened, people may feel better after their competence or achievements are primed. If their ability is threatened, people may feel better after they contemplate their relationships. Tullett, Teper, and Inzlicht (2011) refer to these approaches as indirect strategies.
According to other scholars, however, to override the effects of threats, individuals need to restore the characteristic that was threatened. For example, if the relationships are threatened, individuals will not feel better until after they consolidate these friendships or other associations. Tullett, Teper, and Inzlicht (2011) refer to these approaches as direct strategies
To reconcile this distinction, Tullett, Teper, and Inzlicht (2011) argue that individuals tend to apply direct strategies. However, in some instances, they will apply indirect strategies.
Specifically, in some instances, people feel a sense of distance or detachment from the threat. Perhaps the threat unfolded in another location or may transpire in the remote future. In these instances, people are likely to perceive the threat as a broad concern rather than as a specific problem. That is, they conceptualize the threat as an abstract matter instead of a concrete complication (see construal level theory). Accordingly, they perceive indirect strategies as appropriate.
Besides the evidence that substantiates construal level theory, Tullett, Teper, and Inzlicht (2011) refer to other studies to substantiate their contention. For example, they highlight that an abstract construal increases the likelihood that threats are conceptualized or interpreted broadly.
Tullett, Teper, and Inzlicht (2011) argue that error-related negativity, a brainwave that emanates from the anterior cingulate cortex, may underpin the mechanism that decides whether a direct or indirect strategy should be applied. The ERN seems to be evoked when people feel their actions contradict their goals, reflecting threat or dissonance. Furthermore, the anterior cingulate cortex determines which responses or networks will be activated.
Threats to meaning
In general, incongruent or contradictory information threatens meaning. That is, any information that challenges perceived regularities or prevailing expectations will threaten meaning, eliciting attempts to derive meaning from alternative sources.
Randles, Proulx, and Heine (2010) show that even pairs of unrelated words are sufficient to elicit this sequence of processes. They present the example of quickly and blueberry. These words, if presented together, should evoke a sense of incongruence. These two words are not semantically related: blueberries cannot be quick. The words are not syntactically related either: an adverb should not proceed a noun. Such pairs of words evoke attempts to uncover meaning.
For example, in one study, participants were exposed to a series of words. Their task was to decide whether each word was pleasant or unpleasant. Embedded in this task was a set of subliminal congruent word pairs, like "bull frog" or "turn left, or incongruent word pairs, like "turn frog" or "bull left".
Then, participants completed a task that assesses implicit learning--the capacity to uncover patterns unconsciously. The participants were exposed to 45 strings of 8 letters, like X M X R T V T M. These arrangements conform to specific rules. For example, some letters were likely to follow other letters, and so forth. Participants were asked to copy these letters. Next, a series of additional strings of 8 letters were presented. Participants were asked which of these additional strings conform to the pattern of the previous strings. Often, participants can distinguish strings that conform to this pattern and strings that do not conform to this pattern, even when they cannot explain their responses, called implicit learning.
Exposure to incongruent word pairs tended to enhance implicit learning. That is, after exposure to unrelated words, individuals could uncover patterns more effectively.
According to the meaning maintenance model, when individuals contemplate their mortality, their sense of meaning is threatened (for other explanations, see terror management theory). That is, young individuals in particular often entertain thoughts that almost imply their life is permanent. Awareness of death contradicts these thoughts and, therefore, should increase the likelihood that individuals seek meaning from other sources. They might, for example, attempt to affirm their moral values, representing another source of meaning.
Randles, Proulx, and Heine (2010) confirmed this possibility. Some participants were encouraged to reflect upon their mortality. Next, they were asked to specify the amount of bail they feel should be set for a prostitute who had been arrested. If participants had considered their mortality, they subsequently recommend a higher bail. That is, they become more inclined to perceive prostitution as immoral and thus penalize the perpetrator accordingly.
Some researchers have argued that boredom might represent a threat to meaning. Specifically, when people feel bored, they may perceive their life as meaningless and pointless. Consequently, their primary motivation is to restore this sense of meaning.
van Tilburg and Igou (2011) provided some evidence that aligns to this possibility. According to this premise, boredom should activate mechanisms that restore meaning. For example, boredom could incite the need to inflate self esteem. Therefore, when people are bored, they may overrate the attributes of their own communities or collectives and underrate the attributes of other communities or collectives (see social identity theory).
van Tilburg and Igou (2011) undertook a series of studies that vindicates this argument. In one study, some participants, all of whom were Irish students, completed a tedious task in which they counted the number of letters in a sentence. Other participants did not complete this task. Next, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they prefer the name Eoin, an Irish name, over Owen, an international name. If these Irish participants completed the boring task, they were subsequently more inclined to prefer the Irish name.
In the second study, to evoke boredom, Irish participants completed 100 trials of a counting task. Other participants completed only 50 trials. Next, they read about an Englishman who had perpetrated a crime against an Irish victim. Their task was to decide the jail sentence. If participants had completed 100 rather than 50 trials of the counting task, they were more inclined to impose a tougher sentence. That is, they treated members of other communities, in this instance the English, harshly.
A subsequent study showed this inclination was observed only when they imposed sentences on members of other communities rather than members of their own community. Specifically, if the participants were Irish, boredom did not affect the sentences that were imposed on Irish defendants. Furthermore, another study showed this effect of boredom was especially pronounced for the groups or collectives to which individuals perceived as moderately, rather than very, important to their lives. Presumably, groups that were perceived as very important were susceptible to these biases even when individuals were not bored. The final study showed that a motivation to restore meaning, as gauged by the question ""o what extent they wanted to do something meaningful?", mediated this relationship between boredom and in-group bias.
Exposure to unconventional music and outgroup derogation
After people are exposed to unconventional music, rather than conventional music, they become more inclined to favor their in-group over their out-group. That is, intergroup biases tend to be more pronounced.
In one study, for example, conducted by Maher, Van Tilburg, and Van Den Tol (2013) in Ireland, some participants listened to unusual music, such as music with unconventional time signatures. Other participants listened to similar but more conventional music. After listening to this music, these individuals indicated, on several 7 point scales, the extent to which the music deviated from expectations, aroused intense emotions, and was positive or negative. Finally, participants specified the amount of money they were willing to wager on Ireland beating England in a forthcoming rugby match. If participants listened to unconventional music--music that diverged from expectations--they were more likely to gamble a significant amount on Ireland winning, potentially reflecting an in-group bias.
Subsequent studies replicated this finding. For example, one study showed that people who listened to unconventional music allocated a smaller budget to help a minority group. In another study, participants listened to a song before or after editing to reduce the coherence of themes. Again, incoherence in the music provoked derogation of the out-group: Irish participants who listened to the incoherent variant recommended longer jail sentences to an Englishman who assaulted an Irishman.
Presumably, unconventional music seems incoherent. This incoherence threatens a sense of meaning. Outgroup derogation may reflect an attempt in people to inflate their self-esteem and, therefore, restore this sense of meaning.
Neural underpinnings of meaning maintenance
According to Randles, Heine, and Santos (2013), the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is vital to meaning maintenance (see the anterior cingulate cortex). That is, this region seems to be very sensitive to conflicts between actual events and expectations or goals. For example, this region becomes activated in response to social exclusion, physical pain, or similar sources of discomfort and uncertainty. Adherence to belief systems that override uncertainty, such as political conservatism, inhibits activity in this region (Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Inzlicht et al., 2009). Threats to meaning may also activate this region, ultimately eliciting responses that are intended to restore meaning.
To assess this possibility, in two studies, participants were exposed to threats to meaning. In one study, for example, some participants wrote about death. In another study, some participants watched a surrealist movie. Next, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they would punish someone who broke the law. In general, exposure to these threats to meaning provoked more punitive responses to prostitutes: these participants set bail to a higher figure, for example. This effect, however, diminished if acetaminophen, under the name Tylenol, a drug that inhibits the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, was administered.
Related or alternative theories
Model of belonging regulation
According to the meaning maintenance model, when one source of meaning is obstructed, individuals often seek other sources of meaning to compensate. Nevertheless, when social bonds are obstructed, individuals often attempt to reinforce social relationships rather than seek other sources.
Specifically, according to the model of belonging regulation, after individuals feel rejected in social contexts, they enact a variety of responses to reinforce these social connections. For example, after they feel rejected, if other people are available, individuals are more likely to become generous (Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007) and compliant (Williams & Sommer, 1997), for example. They also become more likely to mimic the mannerisms of other people (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003; see also mimicry). These responses are intended to facilitate the formation of relationships.
In addition, if nobody is available in the environment, individuals invoke representations of social bonds to nullify this sense of rejection. After they are rejected, individuals are more incline to peer at family photographs or magazines (Gardner, Jefferis, Knowles, & Dean, 2008, cited in Knowles & Gardner, 2008).
Finally, as Knowles and Gardner (2008) showed, after social rejections, individuals attempt to conceptualize themselves as members of a particular subset of groups--groups that confer a sense of belonging. In one study, some participants imagined a time in which they felt rejected by a friend. Other participants imagined a time in which they felt they belonged. Next, participants completed a measure that assesses whether or not they are more sensitive to words that relate to groups than to other terms (see measures of accessibility). In particular, words with missing letters were presented, like cl - - , - - - ily, and te - -, were presented. Participants had to identify the word. The items could be completed with words that relate to groups, such as club, or with words that do not relate to groups, such as clot. Finally, a measure of self esteem was administered.
After participants reminisced about a time in which they were rejected, they were more likely to identify words that relate to groups, such as club, family, member, team, male, woman, and white. Hence, to instill a sense of belonging, their attention was especially directed to groups. Furthermore, if indeed words that relate to groups were accessible, as measured by this word fragment task, recollections of rejection did not curb self esteem. Hence, this accessibility of groups seems to reinforce self esteem.
The second study was similar, apart from three key differences. First, a different control condition was utilized. Participants imagined physical distress or misfortune, like an accident, to ensure the effects of rejection cannot be ascribed merely to negative mood states. Second, a lexical decision task was utilized to assess the accessibility of words that relate to groups. That is, participants had to decide, as rapidly as possible, which strings of letters were words. Third, participants were asked to describe themselves with 10 statements.
Relative to participants who imagined a time in which they felt physically distressed, participants who imagined a time in which they felt rejected tended to recognize words that relate to groups more rapidly than words that do not relate to groups. Furthermore, when they described themselves, they referred to groups that are more cohesive and homogenous, such as family, rather than broad collectives, such as their nation. That is, entitavity was elevated, perhaps because these cohesive and homogenous groups confer a greater sense of belonging.
Indeed, as the third study showed, after they feel rejected, participants inflate the extent to which they perceive their groups as entitative. That is, they rated the groups as especially cohesive and meaningful. The final study showed that primes that highlight groups, instead of personal traits, curb the negative affect of rejection on mood and confidence in social contexts.
Need to belong and false consensus
Sometimes, individuals experience a profound, but unfulfilled, need to belong. In these instances, to satisfy this need, the thoughts of these individuals are often biased. One of these biases is called false consensus. In particular, individuals overestimate the percentage of people in their community who share their opinion on some important topic. Consequently, they feel like they will be accepted by their community (Morrison & Matthes, 2011).
This bias can evoke a range of problems. To illustrate, suppose that managers experience a profound need to belong. These managers will thus assume their employees will share their opinions on some topic. They might, therefore, implement practices that align to their own preferences but diverge from the needs of everyone else.
Morrison and Matthes (2011) conducted three studies that verify this association between the need to belong and false consensus. In one study, Swiss participants completed a questionnaire that assesses need to belong. A typical item is "It is scary to think about not being invited to social gatherings by people I know". In addition, they were asked whether they support the forthcoming referendum on imposing stricter regulations on citizenship. Furthermore, they were asked whether they feel that Swiss people in general share this opinion. Similarly, they were asked to estimate the percentage of Swiss people who will support or reject this referendum. Finally, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they perceive this issue of citizenship as important.
If need to belong was elevated, participants were more likely to feel that Swiss people share their opinion on citizenship. They estimated that a significant proportion of the population would express this opinion in the forthcoming referendum. This association was especially pronounced if individuals perceived this issue of citizenship as important.
The second study was similar except the need to belong was manipulated. That is, participants completed the word unscrambling task. They received 20 sets of four words. For each set, the task of participants was to rearrange the words to construct sentences comprising only three words. To evoke a need to belong, some of the words were synonymous with rejection or exclusion. To fulfill this need to belong, some of the words were synonymous with inclusion. Furthermore, in this study, the issue centered on attitudes towards an alcohol tax rather than citizenship.
Again, if a need to belong was evoked--because participants were exposed to words that are synonymous with rejection or exclusion--these individuals were more likely to assume their attitudes towards an alcohol tax would be shared by most of the population. If alcohol tax was perceived as an important issue, this effect was especially pronounced.
The final study showed that false consensus does indeed fulfill this need to belong. When participants were informed their opinions match the attitudes of most people, they reported a diminished need to belong.
Many studies show that need to belong may evoke other similar biases. When this need is amplified, individuals overestimate both the homogeneity of their groups (e.g., Pickett & Brewer, 2001) as well as the extent to which these groups represent a cohesive entity (e.g., Knowles & Gardner, 2008). In addition, people with an anxious attachment style (see attachment theory)--who are worried they may be rejected by a specific individuals rather than people in general--also demonstrate a pronounced false consensus effect (e.g., Mikulincer, Orbach, & Iavnieli, 1998).
According to the meaning maintenance model, when meaning is threatened, people become more inclined to derogate victims and seek certainty, manifested as need for closure. Nevertheless, Bal and van den Bos (2012) uncovered some findings that seem to clash with these assumptions. Specifically, these authors discovered that an orientation to the future--an orientation that should enable people to perceive their activities as coherent and meaningful--increases, rather than decreases the inclination of people to derogate victims and seek certainty. That is, a state that should reinforce meaning seems to evoke the same responses as events that threaten meaning.
For example, in the first study, participants read about a person who had contracted HIV. Their task was to evaluate the extent to which this person deserved HIV as a consequence of their actions. If participants reported an elevated level of orientation to the future, as gauged by the future scale of the time perspective inventory, they were likely to derogate this victim, even if the condom had broken inadvertently during sex.
In the second study, to prime a future orientation, participants were asked to reflect upon a future goal. In the control conditions, participants were asked to reflect upon a more immediate goal. Next, they completed a scale that gauges intolerance towards personal uncertainty, typified by items such as "At this moment, to what degree would uncertainty frighten you?" A future orientation increased intolerance towards uncertainty. The final study also confirmed that derogation of victims was evoked by this uncertainty.
According to the researchers, if individuals orient their attention to the future, they are especially sensitive to whether or not their world is certain. After all, if the world is uncertain, the attempts of individuals to predict and enhance the future will be futile. To promote this certainty, they like to believe the world is fair and just, increasing their tendency to derogate victims.
But how can these findings be reconciled with the meaning maintenance model. Perhaps an orientation to the future is not equivalent to a sense of meaning and coherence. For example, if people feel helpless or anxious, they might fantasize about the future to avoid these pressing complications. Therefore, in some instances, an orientation to the future will not coincide with a sense of purpose and meaning but reflect a defence mechanism.
Likewise, after people orient their attention to the future, they do not necessarily experience a sense of purpose and meaning. Instead, they experience this purpose and meaning only if four conditions are fulfilled, such as feelings of efficacy and control (e.g., Baumeister, 1991).
Other taxonomies of biases to overcome threats
Three categories of denial
Wiebe and Korbel (2003) distinguish between three categories of denial. These categories include:
Researchers have also uncovered a variety of strategies that individuals apply to deny the implications of some threat. For example, they may:
As Thompson, Robbins, Payne, and Castillo (2011), when a message is very threatening, people tend to derogate the information altogether. In contrast, when the message is not as threatening, people tend to deny the relevance of this information to themselves. Presumably, if a message is very threatening, individuals cannot as readily claim they are immune to the threat. To prevent anxiety, they strive to dismiss the information altogether.
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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 29/10/2010
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