Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Experimental Existential Psychology: Research tries to measure how we find life's meaning

I found this article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune. It poses some interesting questions about how humans seek to make meaning in a world that can seem random and chaotic. Apparently, for some, consciousness of death (even if it remains pre-conscious) can trigger a more conservative attitude, which explains a lot about how this country acted after 9/11.

I'm forced to wonder how much one's developmental level might impact this, as well as one's typology. And there must be other factors, as well.

I'm posting the whole article, so be warned -- it's long:

Research tries to measure how we find life's meaning

By Ronald Kotulak
Tribune science reporter
Published March 26, 2007

The day after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Harvard University psychologist Dan Wegner found himself dashing from store to store desperately trying to buy an American flag.

Then he realized with a start that what he was doing could be predicted by a new field of psychology that until then had been considered fringe science. His patriotic urge, Wegner realized, was an attempt to counterbalance the scary thought of his own mortality brought on by the attacks.

The developing field, called experimental existential psychology, or XXP, explores how people find meaning and purpose in their lives. A topic that was once the province of poets and philosophers can now be examined under the cold light of science, researchers say.

How people deal with existential concerns could help explain a broad spectrum of behavior, they believe, from political and religious leanings to altruism and the pursuit of riches to patriotism and terrorism.

Already, experiments have shown that when people are reminded of their own deaths, they become more patriotic, more conservative, more family-oriented, more security-minded.

The fear of death also provokes a need to feel connected to others, to have a clear sense of identity, to know how one fits into the world, and to feel one has free will.

Wegner said his experience in 2001 convinced him this line of thinking had merit.

"I never had that need for a flag before. It just suddenly came up," he said. "The response to the threat of terror gives you this feeling that you have to find value in your life. You have to find what it is that makes you worthwhile, and one of them is being a patriotic American."

Psychologists have long avoided studying how people find meaning in life, believing the subject could not be pinned down by experimental evidence. From 1920 to the 1970s, they exclusively studied behavior, something they could observe and compile data on, and most still do.

In the mid-1980s, three psychologists founded the field of XXP. They were inspired by "The Denial of Death," a 1973 book by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who maintained that the unique human awareness of death, and its denial, motivated a lot of human behavior.

The book led the trio--Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona, Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College--to develop a terror management theory to explain how people deal with thoughts of their own demise.

"The basic idea that we're exploring is that people's concerns about their mortality underlie a lot of their strivings to sustain their sense of meaning, to defend their belief systems and to strive for self-worth," Greenberg said.

These thoughts are the result of a tug of war between a primitive instinct to survive at all costs and a brain that is not only conscious of its own existence but also is aware that in the long run survival is a losing battle.

What am I doing here? Am I alone in the universe? Is life meaningless? How will I be remembered? Did I do the right thing?

With other animals, said Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, "it's not like they've got any kind of understanding that they're going to die. They react to the world in a way to survive, but they don't go to sleep at night thinking, `Oh my God, how many years do I have left?'"

The three psychologists set out to devise experiments to examine these kinds of thoughts, an effort that a recent psychology journal described as "Introducing Science to the Psychology of the Soul."

In one such study, when students were asked whether they supported using nuclear weapons against terrorists, the majority of both liberals and conservatives said no. But among students reminded of death, a majority of conservatives were in favor of using nuclear weapons. The majority of liberals still were against it.

Similar results were found in a study Greenberg conducted with an Iranian colleague. The majority of Iranian students favored peaceful approaches over suicide bombings as a strategy for dealing with international problems. But when their mortality became an issue, the results were the opposite.

Study subjects are reminded of mortality in various ways, including being asked to think about it, being walked past a funeral parlor and being shown a computer screen with the word "dead" flashed too fast to be consciously registered.

"What makes Greenberg and his colleagues special is that they're hell-bent on bringing this stuff into the lab in a very hard-nosed' experimental, quantitative sense," McAdams said. "That's what distinguishes them from a lot of other people who study meaning from a scientific standpoint."

The traumatic Sept. 11 attacks were the turning point for the field. The American Psychological Association asked Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski to write up their research in a book that might help explain why some people engage in terrorism and how others respond.

Among the points made in their 2003 book, "In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror," was that modern people are much more exposed to "alternative meaning systems" than in the past.

"We have different versions of God, different versions of evil," Greenberg said. "It's one of the things that contributes to some of the large-scale conflicts that exist in the world. With exposure to other people and other belief systems, there's a threat to our own sense of meaning."

Some of the things Americans do, for example, violate the belief system common among residents of the Middle East, and vice-versa. People in the Middle East tend to be less materialistic and more spiritual, Greenberg said. They think about death more consciously, and they consider people who die for their belief system to be martyrs.

"And because we don't understand their world view, we're angering them in a very deep way and we don't understand it sometimes," he said. "Our hope is that by understanding psychologically where people are coming from ... we can use education, communication and other diplomatic tools to try and change the way we're viewed."

In the United States, the threat of terrorism has made citizens feel more anxious for security. A study Greenberg and his colleagues conducted before the 2004 presidential election found that college students were slightly in favor of Democrat John Kerry. But when the students were reminded of their mortality, a fear that terrorism provokes, the majority favored his Republican opponent, George Bush.

"It's the psychology of the soul in the sense of looking at the deepest things we rely on in our lives," he said. "It is a sense of inner being that helps us function and feel secure in what's really a scary world.

"We all want a sense of continuance, a sense that we're more than just these temporary creatures on this dirt ball," Greenberg said. "We want to feel we're significant beings in a meaningful world."
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