Making meaning in the midst of threat

Erin Beal on terror management and moving beyond existential crisis in ‘unprecedented times’.

Our worldviews – work, socialising, hobbies, whatever these ‘meaning frameworks’ may be – are under attack from all angles. The monstrous threat of Covid-19 is a threat to all aspects of our lives, and sitting right at the top in terms of existential threat is death. It disrupts all goal pursuits and cannot be thought of as speculative (Solomon et al.i, 2004). We are bombarded with news stories of the daily death toll and talk around ‘flattening the curve’. Threats to meaning systems have been researched extensively in the area of existential psychology. What lessons can we draw from that work, to help us through the crisis? 

Maintaining meaning

The perception that mortality induces terror dates back to philosophers such as Kierkegaard, who surmised how people are afflicted with the misfortunate knowledge that all living organisms must die, themselves included. Following this, terror management theory (TMT) was conceived from the concepts of Ernest Becker (1973) who proposed that humans create a symbolic self in order to feel as if they will last forever, consequently repelling the fear surrounding death. People are unique in the sense that they have an awareness of the self, thus allowing them to function in an effective way in the present moment. 

The meaning maintenance model (MMM; Heine et al., 2006) incorporates TMT and labels people as ‘meaning makers’. This meaning framework is liable to contradictions however; the more personal the framework under scrutiny, the more urgent the need to protect it. Once a decision is made, dissonant information is unwelcomed as it conflicts with previously constructed meaning frameworks (Festinger, 1957; Joans et al., 2003). When a personal framework bound to a person’s worldviews is threatened, there is a pressing urgency to repair the damaged framework or to construct a new one or reaffirm a separate undamaged framework. These threats are instances in which understanding of beliefs and observations are contested, thus creating a sense of incoherence and uncertainty (Tullett et al., 2011). 

However, meaning threats can be induced in ways other than mortality salience and cause feelings of unease. For example; boredom (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012; Van Tilburg et al., 2013), incoherence and confusion (Heintzelman et al., 2013) loneliness (Stillman et al., 2009) disillusionment (Maher et al., 2018; Maher et al., 2019) and contemplating feelings of uncertainty (Van den Bos et al., 2004) have all been demonstrated as antecedents to meaning dysregulation. Currently all of these are now daily parts of the ‘new normal’ for many people as we are experiencing lock down. We will all be experiencing boredom on some level being confined to our homes and running out of books to read or Netflix shows to watch. It is also assumed that there will be a level of confusion as to how we should react to the ‘new normal’, how we should feel about what is happening to our world and how the pandemic is being dealt with. Unfortunately, many of us will be feeling varying levels of loneliness as we are separated from our friends, family and work colleagues. The sting of which might only hit after a video call ends and you feel that pang of wanting to reach through the screen and hug the people on the other end (because we gain meaning from relational ties – Van Tilburg et al., 2019). Disillusionment may be also felt regarding how safe we thought the world was, or the lack of PPE available to our front-line staff working tirelessly to try and keep us safe. Finally, uncertainty is rife; no matter who you are, where you are, this threat is one that does not discriminate, and we will all be experiencing feelings of uncertainty about… everything! In this way we can see that we will all be experiencing a sense of ‘existential distress’, which can be define as a ‘set of unpleasant affective experiences significantly characterized by a negated sense of meaning’ (van Tilburg et al., 2019).

Fluid compensation

Fluid compensation as proposed by the MMM is employed in response to a meaning threat. Here people seek to compensate by reaffirming a non-related, undamaged framework. When a threat occurs, a person’s worldview is under scrutiny and they begin to search for certainty in other areas in order to preserve a sense of stability; a motivation to maintain meaning (Heine, Proulx & Vohs, 2006). However, when we are confined to our houses, separated from the ones we love, blocked from engaging in preferred activities, we are left with few ways in which to regain a sense of consistency in our worldview. We can, however, find ourselves snacking on food to reduce our consciousness of a dull situation (Moynihan et al., 2015) and making impulsive decisions (Moynihan et al., 2017) such as online shopping orders.   

However, this search for meaning can also be positive and functional. It can increase creative task performance (Mann & Cadman, 2014), which is possibly why we see so many beautiful pieces of artwork chalked on pavements or stuck to windows celebrating our NHS. Creative endeavours can include fundraising, such as Captain Tom Moore and his extraordinary fundraiser. It can also induce nostalgic reverie (Van Tilburg et al., 2013) which is perhaps what sparked the 10-year photo challenge on Twitter or the couples sharing ‘our first photo together’ on Instagram. Furthermore, people who are experiencing boredom and therefore searching for meaning, show increased commitment to heroes (Coughlan et al., 2017), as they offer us a sense of direction and purpose (Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2017; Kinsella, Igou & Ritchie, 2017). That is maybe why we stand out and develop a ‘Le Creuset wrist’ as we cheer, clang and clap for our own heroes every Thursday at 8pm.  

Khun (1962/1996) proposed that people can either change existing belief systems in order to accommodate the new information or alter the incoming information itself in order for it to coincide with original belief systems. But how can we currently do this? As we keep hearing, these are ‘unprecedented times’. Even when we are faced with small changes to our worldview, we react with negative emotions. Heintzelman, Trent and King (2013) exposed participants to images of trees that followed the colours pertaining to the passing seasons in the natural order, which then lead them to rate their lives as more meaningful than those who were presented the photos in a random order. This was also the case with Bruner and Postman’s (1949) participants when showed a deck of cards with the suits in unexpected colours. They exhibited increased frustration or assimilated the change seamlessly by engaging in fluid compensation strategies. Currently we are bombarded with uncertainty and the unexpected. Therefore, it is completely understandable that we would feel existentially under attack in the ‘new normal’ in which we are living.  

Which ingredients sustain you most?

Perceived meaning in life has three ingredients: significance, purpose and coherence (Martela & Steger, 2016). Covid disrupts all of these simultaneously as: loneliness and lack of contact with others challenges our perceived personal significance (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006), boredom invokes a lack of perceived purpose (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012, 2013), and disillusion and uncertainty threatens a sense of coherence in life (Maher et al., 2018).

Therefore, when you reflect on how you are coping or feeling during this current worldwide pandemic, spend a moment to introspectively examine which meaning frameworks you hold dear that are under threat. If one positive can come from this incredibly difficult time it is maybe that we can reflect on the areas of our life that we miss the most, the ones that feel most threatened. It may highlight what we hold most dear and the areas of our frameworks that we most want to spend time in when we are allowed to reengage in the ‘new normal’ post lock down. We can be aware of our frameworks that we subjectively construct, and we can try to live our lives in a meaning filled way. Also, perhaps like with panic symptoms, knowing why we feel the way we do can make the experience a little less affronting.  

Erin Beal is a Trainee Clinical Psychologist.


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