We manufacture meaning

When people don’t have much going for them, as Barack Obama said, they tend to cling to their guns and religion.

Here is an important paper from Princeton in 2016:

Meaning-making is a fundamental characteristic of thinking minds. Expose a person to a set of completely unrelated events and observe the complex ways in which human minds create connections, tell stories, and go beyond what is given to imbue chaos with order. We are concerned here with understanding the conditions under which one’s tendency to search for meaning backfires and leads to conspiratorial thinking and superstitious beliefs.

Decades of investigation into the processes involved in meaningmaking revealed that it is an automatically triggered (Kahneman, 2013), evolutionary adaptive (Foster & Kokko, 2009; Sherman, 2002), and developmentally dynamical (Tronick & Beeghly, 2011) feature of the cognitive system. It influences information processing fromperception (Heider & Simmel, 1944), to more complex mnemonic (Bartlett, 1932; Schacter, 2002) and decisional (Nickerson, 1998) processes. For themost part, this ability to make sense of a complexworld has positive consequences. It has been shown to result inmental and physical health benefits (Ownsworth & Nash, 2015), increased well-being (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Rickett, & Masi, 2005; Shek, 1992), emotion regulation (Ochsner, Silvers, & Buhle, 2012) and adjustment to trauma (Park, 2010). But the ability to search for meaning sometimes backfires. In an effort after meaning individuals falsely remember events that they haven’t actually experienced (Clancy, 2005; Schacter, 2001), they preferentially process belief consistent information (Snyder & Swann, 1978) and engage in motivated reasoning as a way to maintain internal consistency (Kunda, 1990).

One important way in which meaning search could backfire is when meaning is assigned to meaningless events. Recent research hints at the fact that the tendency to endorse conspiracy theories could be seen as an exaggeration of the processes involved in meaning search. Whitson and Galinsky (2008), for example, find that when people are made to feel uncertain or when they lack control over a situation they are more likely to endorse superstitious beliefs and conspiracy theories. Complementarily, affirming control has been found to result in reduced beliefs in conspiracy theories (Prooijen & Acker, 2015).We reasoned that: (1) one particular instance in which people are made to feel uncertain and might be motivated to reestablish control by engaging in search for meaning are situations involving social exclusion, and (2) this search for meaning might, in turn, make people particularly prone to endorse superstitious beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. Both premises are supported by previous research. Stillman et al. (2009), for instance, found that social exclusion is associated with feelings of meaninglessness.

Even though loss of meaning does not necessarily trigger meaning search, previous research has found a moderate correlation between meaning presence and meaning search (Grouden & Jose, 2015). As for the relation between meaning search and superstitious beliefs, Routledge, Roylance, and Abeyta (2015) provide experimental evidence
that threatening meaning results in increased belief in miraculous stories. This research suggests the possibility that threatening meaning does not necessarily lead to loss of meaning, but rather triggers a search for meaning that increases one’s belief in these miraculous stories. In essence, we contend, in order for one’s effort after meaning to backfire it is not sufficient for one to experience a loss of meaning, one needs to actively engage in searching for meaning.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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