When Is the Unfamiliar the Uncanny? Meaning Affirmation After Exposure to Absurdist Literature, Humor, and Art

Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Impact Factor: 2.52). 06/2010; 36(6):817-29. DOI: 10.1177/0146167210369896
Source: PubMed


The meaning maintenance model asserts that following a meaning threat, people will affirm any meaning frameworks that are available. Three experiments tested (a) whether people affirm alternative meaning frameworks after reading absurdist literature, (b) what role expectations play in determining whether absurdities are threatening, and (c) whether people have a heightened need for meaning following exposure to absurdist art. In Study 1, participants who read an absurd Kafka parable affirmed an alternative meaning framework more than did those who read a meaningful parable. In Study 2, participants who read an absurd Monty Python parody engaged in compensatory affirmation efforts only if they were led to expect a conventional story. In Study 3, participants who were exposed to absurdist art or reminders of their mortality, compared to participants exposed to representational or abstract art, reported higher scores on the Personal Need for Structure scale, suggesting that they experienced a heightened need for meaning.

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    • "Interestingly, other meaning threats besides death can trigger this reaction. Experiences with the " uncanny " (reading a passage of absurdist literature [Proulx, Heine, & Vohs, 2010], an experimenter unexpectedly " transmogrifying " into a different person [Proulx & Heine, 2008], or being exposed subliminally to incongruous word pairs [Randles, Proulx, & Heine, 2011]) led to increased punitive reactions to the social transgressor, suggesting that it restored a general sense of meaningfulness after meaning had been threatened. "
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    ABSTRACT: We examined defensive responses to self-clarity threats, finding that self-uncertain participants gave larger rewards to a social hero, but larger punishments to a social transgressor, than self-certain participants (Study 1). To examine whether there are individual differences in defensiveness to meaning threats, we included moderators, showing that high self-esteem individuals (HSE) thinking about self-inconsistencies gave more polarized evaluations of someone criticizing vs. complimenting their ingroup than self-consistent HSEs (Study 2). We found similar responses to a relational self-clarity threat, among individuals for whom relationships are self-defining (Study 3). Results held controlling for the impact of the self-clarity manipulations on self-esteem. This research is compatible with the meaning maintenance model, which stipulates that various meaning threats elicit fluid compensatory efforts designed to restore general feelings of meaningfulness. We discuss limitations and future directions.
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    • "Related to safety/security is the need for structure (or order), which has been given a prominent place in the literature. It is also a production need in the sense that agentic need satisfaction depends on having or creating " meaningful " situations—that is, situations with discernible structure (Neuberg and Newsom 1993; Proulx, Heine, and Vohs 2010). This need may actually be in the service of aiding predictability. "

    Full-text · Chapter · Jan 2013
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    • "This painting displays a rainbow on the beach. Previous research (Proulx et al., 2010) has established that viewing this absurd piece (compared to this representational piece) with the anticipation of having to describe its meaning increases participants' need for structure, which is considered to be indicative of threatened meaning (Proulx et al., 2010). Consistent with Proulx et al.'s procedure we followed this task with a mood measure to test if the art manipulation impacts affect (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule ; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988; positive affect: M 02.98, SD 0.81; negative affect: M 01.53; SD 0.57). "
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    ABSTRACT: In three experiments we tested whether nostalgia bolsters meaning in life relative to two other modes of autobiographical thought: imagining a desired future experience and recalling a positive past experience. In Experiment 1 participants thought about a nostalgic or desired future experience and then completed a presence of meaning scale. Thinking about a nostalgic (compared to desired future) experience increased perceived presence of meaning. In Experiment 2 we examined whether nostalgia can additionally reduce the search for meaning. Participants thought about a nostalgic, desired future or recent positive experience, and then completed a search for meaning scale. Nostalgia, relative to both comparison conditions, decreased the search for meaning. Finally we tested whether, by virtue of its capacity to increase meaning, nostalgia can mitigate threats to meaning. In Experiment 3 participants were exposed to either absurd or representational art, under the guise that they would later have to interpret its meaning, and then thought about either a nostalgic or a recent positive experience. Meaning was subsequently measured. The absurd art interpretation condition decreased the perceived presence of meaning but nostalgic reflection attenuated this effect.
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