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