Meaning and pupillometry: The role of physiological arousal in meaning maintenance

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The goal of the present dissertation is to examine the role of physiological arousal in meaning maintenance, using the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) as the guiding theoretical framework.

The MMM is an integrative model in the existential psychology literature to explain both what meaning is and how people respond to lost meaning. The central idea is that people adopt sets of beliefs that allow them to make sense of the world. Through the adoption of these beliefs, people structure their experiences and come to expect specific relationships. For example, they may expect that a Two of Hearts playing card is colored red, that white wine is made from white grapes, and that good things happen to good people. According to the MMM, meaning is found in these expected relationships.

However, people’s beliefs are imperfect, causing them to regularly face events that violate their expectations. They may be presented with a black Two of Hearts playing card, discover that white wines are not made from white grapes, and that sometimes bad things happen to good people. These events violate their sense of meaning. The MMM states that the loss of meaning produces a state of aversive physiological arousal. Crucially, this aversive arousal motivates people to perform compensatory behaviors. These are behaviors that in one way or another reduce the aversive arousal that is felt when a loss of meaning is experienced. Compensatory behaviors can consist of reinterpreting the event to be consistent with one’s prior beliefs, by changing one’s beliefs, or by affirming unrelated, yet meaningful, beliefs from a different domain.

In this dissertation we review the literature on potential physiological mechanisms for the arousal-behavior link that is predicted by the MMM. Additionally, we performed experimental studies in which we assessed arousal through the use of pupillometry. Pupillometry is the technique of measuring the size and reactivity of the pupil. The pupil displays small fluctuations that do not serve any visual function. Instead, these small fluctuations reflect a state of physiological arousal. We assessed participant’s pupil reactivity while presenting them with a variety of meaning violations, such as misconceptions, social exclusion, and perceptual anomalies in order to demonstrate that people display heightened arousal after experiencing meaning violations, and that this arousal predicts subsequent compensatory behavior. Together, our findings offer support for the MMM’s tenet that arousal plays a significant role in the maintenance of meaning.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
  • van Beest, Ilja, Promotor
  • Proulx, Travis, Co-promotor
  • Greifeneder, R., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Nieuwenhuis, S., Member PhD commission, External person
  • van Prooijen, J.-W., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Noordewier, M.K., Member PhD commission
Award date29 Sept 2017
Place of Publications.l.
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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