Meaning Maintenance Model Definition
People expect that certain experiences will be associated with one another. For example, if a person goes out to dinner, he or she expects the waiter to bring what he or she ordered. If a person sees a crow, he or she expects it to be black. People expect that good people will be rewarded in life, bad people will be punished, and that their friends will be kind to them. Sometimes, however, these expectations are violated by unusual experiences. Sometimes the waiter brings the wrong breakfast, and sometimes friends are cruel. Sometimes tragedies befall nice people, villains prosper, or an albino crow lands on a neighbor’s roof.
The meaning maintenance model (MMM) proposes that whenever these expected associations are violated by unexpected experiences, it goes against people’s shared desire to maintain meaning, or to feel that their experiences generally make sense. Often, when people’s expectations are violated, they can revise them (“A white crow? Hmm…I guess that some crows can be white as well as black”), or they can reinterpret the experience so that it no longer appears to violate their expectations (“A white crow? I guess I didn’t see it right. It must have been a dove”).
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Alternatively, violated expectations can prompt people to seek out or remind themselves of other experiences that still do make sense to them (“Weird. A white crow? Hmm…maybe I’ll watch that movie again… the one I’ve seen a dozen times before”). MMM proposes that when people’s expected associations are violated, they often reaffirm other expected associations that haven’t been violated, even if the expected associations being reaffirmed don’t have much to do with the expected associations that were violated to begin with. MMM calls this process fluid compensation and proposes that expected associations are substitutable with one another when they attempt to restore a feeling that their experiences generally make sense.
What Is Meaning?
Meaning comprises the expected associations that connect people’s experiences to one another—any experience, and anyway that experiences can be connected. Meaning is what connects people’s experiences of the people, places, objects, and ideas all around them (e.g., hammers to nails, cold to snow, fathers to sons, or dawn to the rising sun). Meaning is what connects experiences of one’s own self (e.g., one’s thoughts, behaviors, desires, attributes, abilities, roles, and past incarnations), and meaning is what connects one to the outside world (e.g., purpose, value, belonging). Despite the many ways that people can connect their experiences, meaning always manifests as expected associations that allow them to feel that these experiences make sense.
Why Do People Maintain Meaning?
The idea that people have a general desire to maintain expected associations was suggested by many Western existentialists in the mid-19th and 20th centuries, including Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus. These philosophers imagined that all humanity shared a common desire to see their experiences as connected to one another in ways that generally made sense. Science, religion, and philosophy were imagined to be different ways of connecting one’s experiences of the outside world, connecting elements of one’s own self, and ultimately, connecting oneself to the world around him or her. These connections were called meaning, and when people experience something, anything, that isn’t connected to their existing expected associations, it was said to be meaningless; such experiences could only be considered meaningful once people have found a way of connecting them to their existing expected associations. According to the existentialists, feelings of meaninglessness could be evoked by any experience that violated one’s expected associations, be it a simple error in judgment, an unexpected observation, a surreal image, feeling alienated from lifelong friends, or thoughts of one’s own mortality, as death was thought to represent one’s final disconnection from the world around him or her.
When experimental psychologists began to talk about meaning in the early 20th century, they used a novel term that was introduced by the English psychologist Fredric Bartlett. Bartlett called these expected associations schemas. Where the existentialists once spoke of meaning, psychologists focused their attention on different kinds of schemas, scripts, worldviews, and paradigms, eventually using many different terms to express the same essential concept: expected associations that connect people’s experiences to one another in ways that make sense.
Psychologists have now spent the better part of a century exploring the specific functions served by different kinds of expected associations. For example, some unconscious paradigms focus people’s attention, which in turn enables them to memorize and recall their experiences. Other scripts provide people a basis for predicting different events in their environment, and allow them to influence their outcomes. Social schemas help people understand their place in society and how they are expected to behave. Many worldviews help people cope with tragedy and trauma by connecting these events to beliefs about a higher purpose and cultural values. Although many theories explore the many functions of meaning, MMM is unique in proposing a general desire to maintain meaning beyond whatever functions it may serve.
How Do People Maintain Meaning?
Different kinds of psychologists have different theories that try to explain how people maintain expected associations. For example, developmental psychologists speak of Jean Piaget’s theory of equilibrium, and many social psychologists are influenced by Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. Like MMM, these theories propose that people strive to connect their experiences to one another through a series of expected associations, while acknowledging that, from time to time, people are exposed to experiences that violate these expectations.
To date, these and other meaning maintenance accounts propose that people deal with violated expectations in one of two ways: revision or reinterpretation. When people have an experience that doesn’t make sense, they will either revise their expectations to include the unusual experience (e.g., “A white crow? Some crows are white”; “Death as the end of life? Death is a part: of living”), or they may reinterpret the unusual experience such that it no longer appears to violate their expectations (e.g., “I did that boring job for no reward? I must have done it because the job was actually fun and interesting”; “Tragedy befalling virtuous people? It wasn’t a tragedy because it made them stronger”). In addition to revision and reinterpretation, MMM proposes a third way that people deal with violations of expected associations; in the face of meaninglessness, people often reaffirm other, generally unrelated expected associations to restore a general feeling that their experiences make sense.
MMM proposes that people maintain expected associations to satisfy their desire to feel that their experiences make sense, beyond any specific function that expected associations may serve. When unusual experiences violate expected associations, this violation compromises the specific function served by those expected associations and challenges people’s general desire to have experiences make sense. When people try to restore a general sense of meaningfulness, expected associations become substitutable for one another; reaffirming one set of expected associations (e.g., social affiliation) may be as good as reaffirming another set of expected associations (e.g., self-concept) when expected associations are violated that serve an entirely different function (e.g., visual schema). The meaning framework being reaffirmed may have no bearing whatsoever on the meaning framework that was originally violated, so it can be said that expected associations are substitutable with one another in this fluid compensation process.
There is much evidence in the social psychological literature for substitutable fluid compensation. For example, researchers have shown that if people experience unexpected inconsistencies in their lives, they may reaffirm their adherence to social values that have nothing whatsoever to do with those inconsistencies. Similarly, if people have their self-concept violated by unexpected failure feedback, they may respond by reaffirming their connection to an established social group that has no bearing on the aspect of self that was violated. Making people uncertain about their visual perceptions may prompt them to more vigorously reaffirm unrelated social values, as does making people feel that they are connected to a group of people that they normally see as being quite different from themselves.
Another example of substitutable compensatory reaffirmation involves reminding people about their eventual death, which in turn prompts them to reaffirm other expected associations more vigorously. This reaffirmation can manifest itself as many different behaviors—seeking greater affiliation with others, showing increasing dislike of people who criticize their current affiliations, or even as seeking patterned associations within seemingly random strings of letters. Although many separate theories attempt to explain these individual behavioral phenomena, MMM proposes that all of these studies (and many, many more) demonstrate the same general psychological impulse: One meaning framework is threatened, and another, unrelated meaning framework undergoes compensatory reaffirmation.
- Heine, S., Proulx, T., & Vohs, K. (2006). The Meaning Maintenance Model: On the coherence of social motivation. Personality and Social Psychological Review, 10, 88-111.