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