Friday, October 15, 2010

Van Tongeren & Green - Combating Meaninglessness: On the Automatic Defense of Meaning

Cool article - free for registration until October 15 (today). It seems that when people's sense of meaning is challenged, they will find other ways to generate self-esteem (reporting religious feelings, perceived immortality, reduced need for others) through a process called "fluid compensation."

Their "Meaning Maintenance Model" is composed of four interchangeable domains: self-esteem, closure and certainty, affiliation, and symbolic immortality. These are ways that we generate and re-establish meaningfulness in our subjective experience.

Or to put it more clearly, humans seek (or re-establish) meaning in "positive conceptualizations of the self, resolving personal uncertainty and situational ambiguity, nurturing close relationships, and linking themselves to larger, longer lasting entities (e.g., a nation or religion) or striving for personal significance (e.g., publishing a groundbreaking manuscript) that may “live on” after they die."

When their sense of meaningfulness is challenged, they go toward one of those four areas to re-establish meaning.

Combating Meaninglessness: On the Automatic Defense of Meaning

Daryl R. Van Tongeren Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA,

Jeffrey D. Green Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA


Research has found that a substantial portion of human cognition occurs beyond conscious awareness to satisfy the superordinate goal of maintaining meaning. Three experiments used a newly developed method to examine the features of meaning and how individuals automatically defend against threats to meaning. In Experiment 1, individuals who subliminally processed meaninglessness-related words, relative to those in a control group, reported being more religious and having more meaningful lives. Experiment 2 extended these results, as individuals whose meaning was threatened bolstered alternative domains of meaning (termed fluid compensation) by reporting higher self-esteem, need for closure, symbolic immortality, and a reduced need to belong. Experiment 3 ruled out an alternative explanation and clarified the effects of threatened meaning on one’s need to belong. These findings elucidate the processes of meaning maintenance in sustaining psychological equanimity. Implications for the automatic defense of meaning are discussed.

This was actually a very interesting study - here is the introduction:
You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.
~Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Humans demonstrate a remarkable penchant for constructing meaning. Few would disagree that a life without meaning would be unpleasant, not to mention difficult to navigate. If words had no connotation, money had no value, or relationships were devoid of significant exchanges, the world would be an unbearable and unmanageable place to exist. Is the existential revelation by Tyler Durden, an anarchist soap entrepreneur who arranged clandestine meetings for men to pummel one another, correct? Regardless of the epistemic veracity of the claim, individuals are likely to react against this statement that disrupts their long-standing assumption that their lives are meaningful.

Meaning has been defined in different ways and at different levels. Some argue that it is the cosmic specialness one adopts to manage existential concerns (Landau, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Martens, 2006), whereas others define it more broadly as predicted or expected relationships or properties such as water being wet or money possessing purchasing power (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Vohs, 2002; Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006). To be sure, meaning is a central feature of social life (Baumeister, 1991), and human life is saturated with various meanings. The function of meaning has been posited by some researchers to be a penultimate motivation aimed at allaying the existential terror associated with an awareness of one’s own mortality (Landau et al., 2006), whereas others have asserted meaning to be the primary source of motivation that coheres subservient social processes into a singular drive (Heine et al., 2006).

Because meaning constitutes a central role in social cognitive processes, we propose that individuals automatically engage in defensive maneuvers aimed at restoring meaning when disrupted. The current research explores the automatic defense against threats to meaning: In three experiments, we explore how individuals ardently combat the threat of meaninglessness.

The Meaning Maintenance Model
The meaning maintenance model (MMM; Heine et al., 2006) posits that the creation and maintenance of meaning is a primary social motivation. According to the MMM, one’s meaning system is composed of four interchangeable domains: self-esteem, closure and certainty, affiliation, and symbolic immortality. That is, individuals find meaning in positive conceptualizations of the self, resolving personal uncertainty and situational ambiguity, nurturing close relationships, and linking themselves to larger, longer lasting entities (e.g., a nation or religion) or striving for personal significance (e.g., publishing a groundbreaking manuscript) that may “live on” after they die. Despite some criticisms of the MMM (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, & Maxfield, 2006), the model provides a fecund theoretical approach for investigating the human desire to preserve meaning (cf. Proulx & Heine, 2006).

The MMM posits that disruptions to one domain of meaning elicit a domain-general bolstering of the alternative sources of meaning in an attempt to preserve meaning and regain psychological equanimity, a process termed fluid compensation. The MMM is hydraulic in nature, asserting that decrements in one meaning domain lead to increments in other, sometimes unrelated, sources of meaning. Such theorizing is consistent with previous work suggesting that various selfprotective mechanisms such as social comparison and selfesteem are easily substitutable (Tesser, Martin, & Cornell, 1996) because they serve a unitary goal. Initial tests of the recent fluid compensation hypothesis have demonstrated that implicit change detection (e.g., unease resulting from a slight change in the environment) elicits greater bolstering of moral schemas (Proulx & Heine, 2008): The subtle switching of experimenters midtask prompted participants to set higher bond for a moral transgressor (i.e., prostitute). Similarly, individuals who read absurdist literature (e.g., Kafka, 1915/1996) subsequently reaffirmed meaning, including reporting a greater preference for structure (Proulx, Heine, & Vohs, in press).

These meaning maintenance findings suggest that threats to meaning are common, encompass disruptions of assumed associations as well as larger existential threats, and elicit defensive reactions. The current investigation extends previous MMM research by directly examining implicitly processed threats to meaning on each hypothesized source of meaning (i.e., self-esteem, closure, belongingness, and symbolic immortality) and illustrates how vigorously individuals defend meaning.

Meaningfulness and the Pursuit of Meaning
Individuals are motivated to maintain meaningful conceptualizations of themselves and the world (Heine et al., 2006). Although meaning seems to be of chief importance in determining one’s psychological equanimity, disruptions to one’s meaning system can be common. Discovering that Santa no longer exists would likely elicit defense (e.g., denial) by a surprised child (e.g., “Santa does exist—I saw him at the mall!”) or a reconfiguring of his or her constellation of meanings (e.g., “My family must really love me, because they work hard to maintain my belief in jolly Saint Nick.”). Because meaning is an essential element in structuring and organizing one’s social world, individuals likely react defensively to threats against meaning in an attempt to sustain meaning. According to the MMM, fluid compensation is the primary mechanism in the preservation of meaning.

Meaningfulness is important for one’s psychological equanimity and existential security; however, the pursuit of meaning may be particularly unsettling in times of threat. Previous research has distinguished between the presence of meaning and the search for meaning (Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006). We propose that, following threats to meaning, the presence of meaning is indicative of a solid meaning constellation (as well as a result of successful fluid compensation), whereas searching for meaning suggests, to some degree, a lack of certainty about one’s meaningfulness or a state of longing for meaning. Because certainty is an important feature of meaning, disruptions to meaning should elicit defensive bolstering of one’s meaningfulness but may likely decrease the uncertain search for meaning—as such, pursuing meaning would not be as effective a compensatory strategy as simply claiming that one’s life is filled with meaning. Insofar as preserving a sense of meaning is an important social motivation, the search for meaning, which implies a lack of meaningfulness, is unsettling in the wake of threats of meaninglessness. Thus, strategies that affirm certainty and meaningfulness are likely to be employed over those that permit uncertainty and the search of meaning.

Fluid Compensation as a Self-Defensive Process
The preservation of meaning is one of many self-defensive processes and is situated among a host of motivations aimed at protecting the integrity of the self. Social behavior has been posited to arise from motivations aimed at protecting the self, such as allaying existential anxiety related to death (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997), procuring and maintaining self-esteem (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004), reducing personal uncertainty (McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001), and avoiding interpersonal and existential isolation (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Pinel, Long, Landau, Alexander, & Pyszczynski, 2006). Thus, motives stemming from self-protection have been cogently argued as wellsprings for social behavior.

Taken together, self-defensive processes, such as fluid compensation, serve integral functions to preserve one’s psychological equanimity, and such mechanisms may be interchangeable (Tesser et al., 1996). In concert with the MMM, we assume the same for meaning (cf. Proulx et al., in press). The goal of fluid compensation is to restore a sense of meaningfulness (Heine et al., 2006), which is accomplished by bolstering domains of meaning following a threat or disruption. However, we may not always be consciously aware of those stimuli that disrupt our meaning. The extent to which humans engage in nonconscious meaning maintenance not only underscores the importance of meaning in social cognitive processes but also emphasizes the flexibility and applicability of self-defensive processes in protecting the integrity of one’s meaning system, even when threats go unnoticed.

The Automatic Defense of Meaning
Research on automatic processing in social cognition is widespread (e.g., Bargh & Chartrand, 1999) and has been catalogued into unified theories (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Greenwald et al., 2002), spurred the creation of diverse methodologies aimed at uncovering nonconscious processes (Greenwald, McGee, & Schwartz, 1998), and catalyzed the investigation of existential concerns (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999). The nonconscious processing of one’s social world has considerable effects on preferences (Zajonc, 1980), mental processes (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000), and behavior (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996). Previous research has established the efficacy of subtle construct activation in producing reliable effects (Draine & Greenwald, 1988; Greenwald, Klinger, & Schuh, 1995), most pertinently when threats of death are presented outside of conscious awareness (through subliminal priming; Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1997) or naturally made salient without conscious recognition (such as proximity to a funeral home; Jonas, Schimel, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2002). Thus, individual behavior and cognition are affected by stimuli in the environment of which individuals are not aware, including stimuli that affect one’s sense of meaning.

One direct route to test whether individuals engage in an automatic defense of meaning is to employ an implicit, or nonconscious, priming technique. Though priming frequently leads to assimilative activation via “spreading of the nodes” (Greenwald et al., 2002), a growing compilation of research has demonstrated that defensive reactions may be elicited by nonconsciously processed threats (e.g., Arndt, Cook, & Routledge, 2004; Arndt et al., 1997; Heine et al., 2006; Proulx et al., in press; Proulx & Heine, 2008; Pyszczynski et al., 1997, 1999). Notably, recent research has demonstrated that threats to moral identity elicit moral behavior as an avenue toward regaining a moral self-concept (Sachdeva, Iliev, & Medin, 2009). In addition, research has suggested that motivational factors affect automatic social behavior (Cesario, Plaks, & Higgins, 2006).

Similarly, because individuals are motivated to maintain meaning (Heine et al., 2006; Yalom, 1980), we find it likely that threats to meaning will evoke reactionary compensation (i.e., fluid compensation) rather than simple assimilative effects, as was the case for moral reaffirmation following threats to morality. Consistent with this notion, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (2004) argued that the importance of a particular psychological construct is directly related to the defense it elicits; thus, strong reactions following threats to meaning suggest a primary role of meaning in the life of an individual. According to the MMM, threats to meaning should produce behaviors aimed at restoring equilibrium through bolstering relevant sources of meaning. That is, meaning threats should prompt individuals to reaffirm meaning in primary domains of meaning rather than report decrements in meaning.

Furthermore, according to the MMM, the four primary wellsprings of meaning are self-esteem, closure, affiliation, and symbolic immortality. The current research employs a nonconscious priming methodology to put the claims of the MMM to empirical scrutiny and extends previous theorizing on the nature of meaning by identifying those sources of meaning that are bolstered (as a result of fluid compensation) following threats of meaninglessness. In addition, the present research disentangles the presence of meaning and the search for meaning by suggesting that the former is indicative of successful fluid compensation after meaning is disrupted whereas the latter is ineffectual in restoring psychological equanimity following threats to meaning.

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