Part 2 on the Meaning Maintenance Model: The evidence

Sometimes I go for runs. I’m not fast, but I could probably outrun a spritely turtle if it ever came down to it. While running, I’ve had some run-ins (pun intended) with geese, which by the way are a-holes.

Today, when faced with two menacing parents and a gosling, I attempted to scare the geese away by flapping my arms and yelling at them, praying they’d get out of the way and stop doing that weird open-beaked hissing thing. Eventually, the two adults flew away and left their gosling to trundle along, useless wings outstretched, toward the man-made lake.

I told you, geese are a-holes. The parents left their gosling to be attacked by a human shaped thing with offensive language. Yet, this is not what I expected, in spite of the murderousness I’ve previously observed among geese.

Furthermore, a rambling anecdote about geese is probably not what you expected when you clicked on this post. Too bad! If you’re annoyed, then you’ve just experienced a meaning threat. If not, congratulate yourself on your appreciation of absurd humor, and correspondingly high intellect (note: this is not a scientifically validated intelligence test).


The weird testing of the MMM

Like my anecdote about geese, the meaning threats that have been tested as part of the MMM could at first glance, seem ridiculous because people expect a threat to be something that’s clearly negative like failing a test, or being told that your face looks like a punched in soccer ball.

Recall that the main idea of the MMM is that people feel uneasy and anxious when their expectations are violated (1). It also makes us feel confused and as though we just don’t understanding how things work anymore (2).

If there is an underlying concept of meaning that’s threatened by violated expectations, then reminders of death, other previously studied threats, and just being in some plain weird and inexplicable situations should elicit a similar reaction.

Compensatory affirmation (1) happens when people feel nervous, uneasy or distressed, but often (although not always) can’t figure out why. This triggers a desire to regain a sense of coherence, which people can do in a variety of ways (e.g. by acting on personal values).

A recent set of studies showed that participants felt the same desire toward compensatory affirmation, which in this case, involved stating how much a prostitute or rioters should be fined when faced with different types of threats. Specifically, participants suggested higher fines when they had an existing negative opinion about these groups, regardless of whether they were faced with mortality salience (i.e. thinking about their own deaths) or something absurd (watching a clip of a weird movie by David Lynch) (3).

So, in comparison to a no-threat (control) group, participants in mortality salience and absurd conditions were more punitive, giving voice to their values against prostitutes and rioters. Also, the similar reactions across different types of threats provides support for the notion that these different experiences target the same underlying system of meaning.

This study also added an interesting twist – it stopped this compensatory reaction by giving participants an acetaminophen (aspirin). Previous research has shown that social rejection and physical pain activate a similar brain region and that aspirin can alleviate both social and physical pain (4). If aspirin could also prevent people from doling out harsher punishments to make themselves feel better when faced with mortality salience or the absurd, it suggests that all of these threats target the same underlying structure of meaning.

This is exactly what these researchers found after randomly assigning participants to a placebo (fake pill) or aspirin condition (participants didn’t know what condition they were in). Punishments were no harsher for participants who received the aspirin, regardless of their condition (control or either type of threat), suggesting that indeed social pain, mortality salience and the absurd are all affecting the same structure of meaning. Yet, the researchers interpret these results with caution, recognizing the need for further study.

Here’s a quick summary of other absurdist threats and their compensatory affirmation effects:

  • When expecting something traditional, but instead seeing a Monty Python skit or surreal art, participants are more punitive toward prostitutes (whom they already view negatively) and desire more meaning in their lives (5).
  • Switching the experimenter without the participant noticing leads to more punitive judgments (6).
  • Playing cards with red spades and black hearts increase ideas about social equality among those with existing liberal views (7).
  • Being exposed to nonsense word pairs (e.g. careful – sweater) for too short a time for conscious processing leads to punishing attitudes for people who go against participants’ values and an increased ability to find new patterns (8).

As you can see, a crucial part of building a new theory is taking into account and sometimes re-interpreting existing research. Additionally, researchers must find new ways to test the ideas that separate their theory from the ones that already exist, which MMM theorists have done quite cleverly.

It’s not always clear that a new theory will be strong enough to take the place of an existing one. To me, it’s clear how the MMM is better than existing models, at least theoretically, because a broad structure of meaning that manifests in different ways across individuals just makes intuitive sense.  

Intuition can be really wrong though, and even though the evidence is promising, I’ll just have to wait and see how this model holds up to further scrutiny and to the concerns that have already been raised by other researchers.   



(1) Proulx, T. & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black Diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17, 309-318.

(2) Proulx, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). The five “A”s of meaning maintenance: Finding meaning in the theories of sense-making. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 317-335.

(3) Randles, D. Heine, S. J., & Santos, N. (2013). The common pain of surrealism and death: Acetominaphen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats. Psychological Science, 24, 966-973.

(4) DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., . . . Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931–937.

(5) Proulx, T., Heine, S. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 817–829.

(6) Proulx, T., & Heine, S. (2008). The case of the transmogrifying experimenter: Affirmations of a moral schema following implicit change detection. Psychological Science, 19, 1294–1300.

(7) Proulx, T., & Major, B. (2013). A raw deal: Heightened liberalism following exposure to anomalous playing cards. Journal of Social Issues, 69, 455-472.

(8). Randles, D., Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Turn-frogs and careful-sweaters: Non-conscious perception of incongruous word pairings provokes fluid compensation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 246–249.

AuthorTara Giller
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Part 1 of 2 on the Meaning Maintenance Model

Today I’m feeling serious and less inclined to write a funny post. Perhaps it’s because a joke-stealing ferret attacked me in my sleep last night, or maybe it’s because I’m still depressed from watching Game of Thrones. Which episode, you ask? It’s doesn’t matter which one, since that show keeps splitting off bits of my soul even though I’ve read all of the books and know what will happen. Digression aside, I’m feeling legit existential today so I’m writing about meaning and one of my favorite psychological theories ever.

The Meaning maintenance model (MMM) is awesome because it brings together some huge areas of research under one unifying theoretical umbrella, and that kind of elegant thinking blows my mind (or put on some sunglasses and say "Whoooa"). Today I’ll summarize what the theory actually says and next week I’ll discuss some research aimed at testing it. Because it’s such a big theory, I’m really only scratching the surface.

Meaning, according to this model, is any kind of relationship that we expect and rely on between people, objects, situations, values etc. In other words, it's really broad and encompasses everything from how we categorize birds to what we expect when we look at a painting. We feel a sense of meaninglessness when those expected relationships are violated. For instance, when yet another character representing justice and balance bites it on GOT, we feel a sense of meaninglessness because it violates our expectation that good will win out over evil (George R. R. Martin, I will find you. For reals).

According to MMM the big threats to meaning include, but are not limited, to:

  • Social rejection
  • Uncertainty
  • Awareness of our own mortality
  • Self-esteem threat

These threats have all been extensively studied, but typically in isolation. Responses to these threats include disbelief, prejudice, aggression, trying extra hard, and even feeling extra committed to values (2, 3, 4, 5). MMM argues that these experiences are all threatening because they upset the same underlying structure, our sense of meaning. In the psych world, this is a huge deal because these threats are thought of as fairly distinct (I’m using “fairly distinct” to sum up the fact that they’re studied independently, but some researchers have tried to link some of these threats together conceptually).

So how is this practical?

Admittedly it’s less practical in the “here’s some advice for today,” type of way. At the same time, I think it’s important to see how it is that theories emerge in response to a need to explain divergent findings and to see a great theory that’s in the process of being tested.

This theory also suggests something that underscores what it means to be human. It means that we feel distressed and deeply uncomfortable when our sense of meaning is disrupted. It should foster a sense of understanding among people altogether because it suggests that when I feel upset about GOT and you feel upset about the weather being unseasonably cold, we’re fundamentally experiencing the same thing, a sense of wrongness in the world. (So now let’s all hold hands and sing).



(1) Proulx, T. & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black Diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17, 309-318.

(2) vanDellen, M. R., Campbell, K. W., Hoyle, R. H., & Bradfield, E. K. (2011). Compensating, resisting, and breaking: A meta-analytic examination of reactions to self-esteem threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 51-74.

(3) Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., Tice, D. M., & Stucke, T. S. (2001). If you can’t join them, beat them: Effects of social exclusion on aggressive behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1058-1069.

 (4) Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror management and tolerance: Does mortality salience always intensify negative reactions to others who threaten one’s worldview? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 212–220.

(5) McGregor, I., & Marigold, D. (2003). Defensive zeal and the uncertain self: What makes you so sure? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 838-852.


AuthorTara Giller

Critical Thinking Part 4

So, do you all remember the story of Oedipus? I hope so, because if not, you’re probably wasting all your mind power wondering about nonsensical things like whether or not Iron Man’s suit could really fly.

Anyway, Oedipus is the focus of a prophecy, which states that he’ll kill his father and sleep with his mother. His parents say “no thanks” and his mother calls a shepherd to off the baby, who ends up sending Oedipus to grow up elsewhere (moral: shepherds are the worst assassins ever). Oedipus grows up, learns of the prophecy, and tries to avoid it. True tragic form, all of their actions inevitably bring about said prophecy.

 “Self-fulfilling prophecies” (1) occur when people form expectations about people that are untrue at the beginning (e.g. Oedipus = worst baby ever) and by behaving in line with those expectations (e.g. attempted baby assassination), help to cause the expected behavior.

Consider another example… Imagine that you’re about to dine with Robert Downey Jr., but you’re not very excited about it because you expect that because he’s a celebrity he will be a jerk (in real life, let’s say he’s actually a peach).

For the sake of this post, place yourself in the fantastical world in which having dinner with RDJ would be against your will.

At the restaurant, the waiter’s just dropped off a menu with words like “truffle” and “amuse-bouche,” because of course Iron Man would pick somewhere that’s pretentiously over-priced.

Then, amidst a frenzy of autograph-mongers, RDJ arrives. He strides up to the table, takes a seat and you roll your eyes. He gives a curt, “hello.” You bristle at this first suggestion of his unpleasantness.

Appetizers are ordered, Iron Man chooses bone marrow. You ask why he’d order something so disgusting. His eyes narrow before he asks why your face is so disgusting (also, maybe he’s better at comebacks in real life).

Dinner plummets from there and eventually ends with RDJ storming out and leaving you with a bill for hundreds of dollars. Unbeknownst to you, you’ve also gained your first arch-nemesis and missed out on an invitation to join the avengers.

“See,” you’ll tell your friends, “Iron Man made me pay for the whole thing! I was right. All celebrities are self-absorbed.” At this point you’re ignoring the fact that your eye-rolling and rude questioning probably annoyed fictional Robert Downey Jr.

Knowing about self-fulfilling prophecies is important because they highlight how our behavior influences other people and can make us think that we were right in our negative (or positive) expectations, when we really played a large part in causing them to come true. Self-fulfilling prophecies also lead us to interpret neutral behavior as in line with our expectations, giving our beliefs more strength.

So, what’s the solution?

Again it comes back to paying attention to your own behavior and curbing judgmental impulses. If you think the person will be a jerk, be extra nice and attempt to disconfirm your initial belief.

And yes, I know that Iron Man is just a character and RDJ is just an actor, wink wink.


1. Rosenthal, R. (2006). Applying psychological research on interpersonal expectations and covert communication in classrooms, clinics, corporations, and courthouses. In S. I. Donaldson, D. E. Berger, & K. Pedzek (Eds.), Applied Psychology: New frontiers and rewarding careers (pp. 107-118). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

AuthorTara Giller