Psychologists Dr Proulx and Professor Heine at the University of British Columbia have published a number of papers on what they call a:
“meaning maintenance model” in which people continually strive to preserve a functioning meaning framework. When people encounter a threat to their meaning, be it through a self-esteem threat, feelings of uncertainty, mortality salience, or witnessing a scene that does not make sense, they need to regain a sense of meaning. Often people will reaffirm an independent meaning framework in their efforts to regain meaning. We are conducting a number of different studies in which we explore the various ways that people respond to a diverse array of threats to meaning”. (Link)
There are two effects that creating meaninglessness can result in: 1. Reaffirming existing ‘meaning frameworks’ such as becoming more patriotic and more willing to defend the status quo. 2. (And this is the interesting one) “when people are not provided with an alternative framework to affirm they will seek out new frameworks instead, and will abstract patterns from noise”.
In their most recent paper (whole article as pdf here), the authors explore effect 2. To quote from the article:
‘‘What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart’’ (Camus). According to Camus, this longing for clarity, for associations that are internally coherent and consistent with one’s environment, underlies the construction of all meaning frameworks, whether they organize scientific observation, religious observance, or plans for a weekend barbeque.”
Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine read half their experimental participants an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The story is vivid and compelling but makes no sense— it is Kafkaesque. The other half of the participants were not confronted with ‘a threat to meaning’. They were read a story that made perfect sense.
All students then studied strings of letters and took a memory test, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a larger list of letter strings. In fact the letters of the study list were related in a subtle way with some more likely to appear before or after others.
The test is a popular measure of implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea of how well they were performing or what patterns their brain was sensing.
But there was a dramatic difference between the Kafka and non-Kafka groups of participants: The Kafka readers (who had been left puzzled), chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than the other group who had read a coherent story and had no ‘threat to meaning’.
“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”
A burning question that I have is this: Is what is going on here something related to intelligence - to fluid and crystallized intelligence more specifically. Does a perceived lack of meaning (or a meaning threat) generate more motivation to use fluid intelligence – exactly that factor identified by Raymond Cattell, and measured by e.g. Ravens Advanced Progressive Matrices (and this free version of it - Jensen’s IQ test). And in the cases of affirming existing ‘meaning structures’ are we talking about crystallized intelligence – what fluid intelligence has already invested in during education and acculturation?
Or alternatively, is this effect an implicit motivation related more to basic associative learning mechanisms?
More on this later… It’s fascinating.