How do we respond when our sense of meaning is threatened?, with Steven Heine

A talk with cultural psychologist Steven Heine (twitter: @StevenHeine4) about how we react to our sense of meaning being threatened. What happens when our mental framework of how the world works doesn’t hold up and things seem chaotic? What happens when our sense of what’s meaningful in our lives is threatened? A transcript is included below.

Topics discussed include: 

  • Heine et al’s Meaning Maintenance Model theory, which proposes that our need for meaning is fluid and that threats to meaning in one area can cause us to try to shore up meaning in another area
  • How ‘meaning’ is defined in this context
  • Existential crises, including mid-life crises and adolescent angst, and how those relate to threats to meaning
  • How our human need for narratives and stories relates to our need for meaning
  • How political polarization might be related to threats to meaning
  • Potentially positive aspects of threats to meaning, such as those that might be present in hallucinogenics-taking and in literature

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family; the more listens and reviews it gets, the more I’ll be encouraged to work on it. 

I think we’d all likely agree that meaning is very important to us humans. We want to feel like we live in a stable world where certain things are associated with certain other things; we like conceptual stability; things being chaotic and unpredictable can be threatening. We also like to feel like our lives have meaning, however we define that; we like to feel like we’re engaged in things that matter. 

On this episode I talk to Steven Heine about how humans react to our sense of meaning being threatened. What happens when our mental frameworks of how the world works don’t hold up and things seem chaotic? What happens when our sense of what’s meaningful in our lives is threatened? 

Steven and his colleagues have proposed a theory they call the “meaning maintenance model”. A 2006 paper by Steven and his colleagues, Travis Proulx and Kathleen Vohs, was titled ​The meaning maintenance model: on the coherence of social motivations. I’ll quote from the abstract of that paper: 

The meaning maintenance model proposes that people have a need for meaning; that is, a need to perceive events through a prism of mental representations of expected relations that organizes their perceptions of the world. When people’s sense of meaning is threatened, they reaffirm alternative representations as a way to regain meaning-a process termed fluid compensation. According to the model, people can reaffirm meaning in domains that are different from the domain in which the threat occurred. Evidence for fluid compensation can be observed following a variety of psychological threats, including most especially threats to the self, such as self-esteem threats, feelings of uncertainty, interpersonal rejection, and mortality salience. People respond to these diverse threats in highly similar ways, which suggests that a range of psychological motivations are expressions of a singular impulse to generate and maintain a sense of meaning.

Here’s some information about Steven Heine from his professor page on the University of British Columbia website: 

He is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Social and Cultural Psychology at the University of British Columbia. His research has challenged key psychological assumptions in self-esteem, meaning, and the ways that people understand genetic constructs. He is the author of many journal articles and books in the fields of social and cultural psychology including Cultural Psychology, the top-selling textbook in the field. In 2016, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. 

Steven is also currently working on a book with the working title, ‘Navigating the absurd: The science of existentialism’, to be published by the publisher Basic Books.’

In this episode, Steven and I talk about threats to meaning and how we handle that; we talk about political polarization and how that might be related to threats to meaning; we talk about existential crises, like the so-called mid-life crisis and adolescent angst; we talk about examples of threats to meaning from our own lives; we talk about the anxiety that having a lot of freedom and choice can paradoxically have for us; and we talk about the theoretically positive aspects of having one’s worldviews and meaning thrown off kilter, as can happen when things cause us to update our perceptions of the world, or, for example, with psychedelics. 

Okay here’s the talk with Steven Heine.

Zach: Hi, Steven. Thanks for coming on.

Steven: Hi, Zach. Thanks a lot for having me on.

Zach: So, in your Meaning Maintenance paper from 2006, you start out by talking about a 1949 study that involved switching the colors of playing card suits and seeing how people reacted to that. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that study and how that relates to the Meaning Maintenance Model.

Steven: Sure. That’s one of my favorite studies by Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman back in 1949. They did something very simple in the study. They showed their participants, university students, some playing cards, one after another and they just asked the people, “What card do you see?” They added a key unexpected element to the study. Beforehand, they painted over the colors on these playing cards with a very still hand so that they changed the colors of the hearts and diamonds to black and the color of the spades and clubs to red, at least for some of these cards. And it was very curious what happened when they showed people these, these anomalous cards, because the first reaction of almost everybody was that they didn’t see any anomalies. They just reported the card as they expected it to be.

So if they were shown a red six of spades, they reported it either as a red six of hearts, or as a six of black spades. And so they didn’t even see the anomaly, they just saw the cards as though they were normal. And then after continuing to show people these cards, they noticed something curious. A significant portion of their participants started to get very anxious and they seemed very distressed. They said their participants were experiencing a disruption. And one of their participants even blurted out that, “My God, I can’t tell that’s a playing card or what that is. I don’t know what a heart is. I don’t know what a spade is,” and they really seem quite distressed. And this is a curious reaction because why should people care about playing cards?

But what Jerome Bruner was interested in there was showing how people depend on these meaning frameworks for making sense of the world. That is, we have these expected associations that we expect to see in the world so that we expect diamonds are red and clubs are black, and these are really well transit associations. And so when they’re violated, this creates this distress in us. So this led us to, we include this study to introduce our idea in, uh, what we call a meaning maintenance model. And what we’re arguing there is that people have a need to maintain a sense of meaning in the world. That we’re always trying to feel that everything around us makes sense and that fits according to our expectations of what things mean. Perhaps I should just maybe offer a definition of meaning here because meaning is one of those words that’s hard to know what it means exactly.

Zach: So broad.

Steven: Yeah. And really, I think there’s two useful definitions of meaning here. But one which people usually call general meaning is that meaning is just really expected associations. That is what ideas we expect to co-occur with any kind of event or thing. So if you were to think, what does your podcast mean to you, it would be all of the ideas that, that you associate with it, or what does Joe Biden mean to you? Or what does COVID mean to you? And it’s just all of the different associations that you would have. And so really what meaning is then is these relations between ideas that we expect and we can have many, many different ideas that are associated with any given event. And these are organized into these meaning frameworks.

So in the study with the playing cards, they were taking a very simple meaning framework that playing cards, there’s 13 cards for suits to colors, knowing that those associations are so reliably seen, like you really don’t encounter black diamonds very often. That they were interested in seeing what happens when you violate this sense of meaning. And so in our model, what we are arguing is that because people are trying to maintain meaning, they become really bothered in or experience of disruption when they encounter something that seems meaningless, at least that violates the expected associations that they have with that. So we have argued that there are a few different kinds of responses that people make when this happens. Two of these responses have been very well studied in the literature, and they go back to the 1950s, for instance, 1950s, there was this Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget.

And he was interested in how little kids go about making sense of the world because in many ways the world doesn’t make much sense to a little kid because a lot of it’s very new to them. So he is interested in, well, what happens when a kid encounter something that doesn’t make sense, that is new to them? And he argued there’s two different reactions that the kids will have there. One which he calls assimilation. I prefer the term faking meaning. And this is when you encounter something that doesn’t make sense, you force it into your existing meaning framework so that it seems to make sense. And this is what happened in Jerome Bruner’s playing card study. That people didn’t see an anomaly. They would see a red six of spades as the six of hearts.

That’s how they would see it. So that’s one reaction that we see the world as we want to see it. And so we have these anomalies out there and we just force them into it so that they-

Zach: Set our model.

Steven: Exactly. And a second response he had, he calls accommodation where I prefer the term making meaning. And that if you have something that doesn’t make sense, you can then change your meaning framework. So that after seeing these playing cards where you have red spades, at some point people were like, “Oh, I understand this deck of cards includes red spades.” That they actually change their understanding of at least this particular deck of cards. So these are these two reactions that have been studied many different ways that they’ve also been studied in terms of how people make sense of traumatic life events.

When things happen to them, they undermine their existing understanding of what life is all about, and that people have to make these changes to their meaning frameworks. But the thing with the second response of making meaning is that it’s really difficult to do. It’s really time consuming and effortful to do. And this paper, 1949 paper by Jerome Bruner, it was picked up, it was noticed by this philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn, who is interested in how scientific knowledge progresses. What he argues that when scientists have these theories and they encounter new facts that are at odds with these theories, they have to change their theories. But this isn’t something that they can easily do actually. Max Plunk once famously said that science progresses one funeral at a time.

Meaning that scientists will often die with their theories, own theories rather than update them with the new information. That we are just so dependent on these meaning frameworks that recreate, that they’re really hard to change, that we become very dependent on these being frameworks. And for scientists, their whole life might be dedicated to a particular theory that’s really hard for them to change it. So what we’re interested in our models is, well, what happens when people experience this meaning threat something that doesn’t make sense. And if they don’t have the time and resources available to make new meaning out of it, to understand it, what do they do? And what we propose here is that people seek meaning somewhere else. Then the idea is that we need to feel that things make sense.

That’s the default state we feel a need to be in. And when we don’t feel this, we have this deep sense of uncertainty. It’s deeply unsettling and, alienating, creates a lot of existential anxiety. And so what we argue is that another response when people encounter something that doesn’t make sense is that they turn to those other aspects of their life that give them meaning. So they turn to something else that makes sense and they increase their commitment to it. They double down on their existing beliefs, which ground them in another meaning framework that makes sense again. So they can return to that feeling that the world makes sense, everything’s okay. And this can be in something completely unrelated to the initial problem that they encountered. So that’s in a nutshell, what our meaning maintenance model is all about.

Zach: So is there a specific example that comes to mind from a study that is a good example of someone shoring up meaning from one threat into another arena?

Steven: Sure. My favorite study at least one that we had conducted, Travis Proulx and myself, we had conducted this study actually after we had written this paper where we are arguing that so many different psychological phenomena fit this idea that we have. Although a big challenge with our model is that it’s a very abstract model. And that there already exists other theories that have predicted these different responses that people have two meaning threats within the limits of these other theories. So just some example, theories like cognitive dissonance is a theory where when people encounter something that doesn’t make sense in their own behavior, that they change the way that they think about themselves in order for it to make sense. But we wanted to come up with a way of threatening people’s meaning that didn’t fit with any of these other existing theories.

And so we thought about it for a while, and then we thought, we are going to expose people to something that looks impossible. We’re going to expose people to a real life magic trick. What we did is we had people, they came into a lab and they were interacting with an experimenter, and they were completing some questionnaires and experimenter kept handing them the next questionnaire. And then at one moment unexpected to the participants, we swapped the experimenters just outside of their view with another person who didn’t look anything like the original person, but was wearing the exact same outfit.

Zach: Little gas lighting going on.

Steven: Exactly. Some major gas lighting going on. And remarkably, over 90% of our participants don’t notice, at least consciously notice that they’re now dealing with another person. Although from what our results show, that at some level they notice something wasn’t right. And they had this feeling that something wasn’t right, something they couldn’t make sense of. After they had this experience, we gave people this measure that’s been used in many other studies that finds that when people feel this threat to themselves, they become more likely to try to defend the status quo that is in this case here, that they want to punish someone who has broken rules with the idea that if we have rules, we expect rules to be followed. They impose a set of order on the world.

So when people are feeling unsettled here, something’s going on, I don’t know what it is, they can ground themselves again by imposing this set of order here that people who break the rules need to be punished. And that’s exactly what we found in this study. That despite that people had no conscious awareness that anything untoward, it just happened to them, they showed this reaction of wanting to punish rule breakers more. And we show this in three separate studies, it seems to be a reliable effect. And I was really this probably the study that I’ve been most excited about in my career because at the time we thought, there’s just no way this should work out. At least intuitively I don’t have any conscious awareness of ever wanting to react to things like this.

But it made sense according to our theory, and we thought we would gamble and go for it. And it worked out in this way. And the participants just, it was really quite funny how they really had no idea that this person had changed. We had one participant who came in and they actually were friends with the second experimenter, the one that they got changed into. And so we changed into the second experimenter, and the person’s like, “Oh my God, I am so out of it today. I didn’t even recognize you.” And they completely showed this faking meaning response. It’s like seeing a card for the color you assume it to be. Just assuming that-

Zach: Fit their model.

Steven: Yeah. They forced it to make sense.

Zach: So how big an effect is it there? I mean, that’s a relatively minor switch, but I’m curious how big an effect.

Steven: We see a significant change in their attitude. It’s not like a night or day change. It’s not like they’re now responding completely differently than how they normally respond. It’s, people become just a little=

Zach: A little bit more.

Steven: A little bit more. And in general, what we find is that people become a little bit more of an exaggerated version of themselves here, that they double down on their existing attitudes. And people can do it in different ways so that liberal people become super liberals after this kind of experience and conservative people become super conservative. It pushes them more in this direction that they already are in.

Zach: So when it comes to the definition of meaning, we can use meaning in a big sense as in like, our life has meaning, or we feel that we’re afraid that life is meaningless. And I’m curious how you see that as comparing to the small granular definition of meaning being having stability of one’s worldview for specific domains. Is it maybe that the big sense of meaning is the accumulation or combination of the smaller definitions of meaning?

Steven: That’s a great question. Before I was giving one definition of meaning, which is typically called general meaning. The big meaning that you’re talking to here is often called a sense of existential meaning. And I think it’s still based on the same underlying structure of expected ideas going together with the difference being that when people talk about meaning in life and existential meaning, they are connecting another set of meanings to these ideas. And these are meanings that connect us to teleological concerns that transcend our everyday lives. They connect us to ideas about having a sense of purpose is a key element in this existential meaning, to having a sense of significance that we matter in the world. And also just a sense of value, what we desire to have.

And so these are just another set of kinds of meanings, kind of ideas that we link to things. And still, I think it’s a very similar idea that when people have a crisis of meaninglessness in their lives, they’re usually talking about more of these sort of existential concerns and that people have a desire then to reestablish this set of meaning in terms of finding a way to pursue a meaningful life. And so I think it’s a similar idea that it’s just linking ideas together, but when we talk about meaning in life, it’s just these are more transcendent teleological meanings.

Zach: It’s almost like we desire this stable framework and then it’s almost like our existential sense of meaning is like ourself being part of that framework in a big sense. So it seems like there’s something about the self being part of the framework

Steven: Exactly. So I think there’s really three main kinds of meanings that we are aspiring to maintain. One is this meanings of ourselves. I want to understand who I am, why I’m doing the things that I’m doing,. We also care about the meanings in the world. We want to understand what the world is like. And then we want to understand our place within that world, how we fit in that world, how ourselves fit into that world. And we are trying to maintain these key sources of meaning as we aspire for a meaningful life.

Zach: So there could be that the so-called existential crises of various some so-called midlife crises might be one type of that, another might be adolescent angst. How do you see these kinds of crises relating to the threats to meaning?

Steven: Yes. So I think as we go about living our lives that we sometimes encounter these events in our life that just really threaten the sense of meaning. And it’s quite common for people to experience those two key times in life that you just brought up. And so adolescent angst is what I think is the existential crisis that people have at a young age in adolescence or early adulthood. And I’m a cultural psychologist by trade. In addition to studying meaning, I’m interested in how cultures vary in the ways that they go about trying to find meaning in their lives. And one striking finding from the anthropological literature is that this idea of adolescent angst is not a cultural universal by any means. And in most small scale societies, they don’t have this idea that adolescent is a time of chaos and turbulence.

Every society recognizes adolescence as a distinct phase in life. But the idea that it’s a turbulent, chaotic time of a lot of angst is not by any means universal. The kinds of cultures that have more of this adolescent angst are those that are more industrialized individualistic societies where people have a lot of different options about the kind of life they’re going to lead. And in adolescence, this is when you have this first existential crisis, potential existential crisis is trying to figure out what life am I going to lead? And when you have lots of options, it can be overwhelming, and trying to figure out what is the right life that I’m gonna lead. And people might try various sorts of things. People in small scale societies at least in terms of what they’re going to do for a career, this is not something that they have a lot of options. They’re going to do what their parents did and what everyone else in their society does. It’s not something they have to figure out. If you’re from a small scale farming society, what are you gonna do with your life? You’re going to farm? That’s like really the only option. But in individualistic, industrialized societies, what are you going to do with your life while there are so many different possibilities that people can pursue, and in trying to figure out this, what life am I going to lead, that adolescents go through a great deal of angst as they try to figure this out. And this has been getting worse over time as this period of adolescence has been expanding, this period of time when people are in this preparatory phase in life.

Now call it emerging adulthood or failure to launch. And the idea that people are now in their 20s or even into their 30s, still haven’t really figured out what life it is that they’re going to lead. And if you look at that, there’s some common benchmarks that have been used for what is achieving adulthood. And it’s things like finishing your training and education, getting a secure position, moving out of your parents’ home, getting your own place, getting married and having kids, although these last two maybe aren’t universally pursued anymore. And those have just been getting later and later as time goes on, and people are in this longer period of this existential angst where they’re trying to figure out what life are they going to lead.

Zach: Yeah. I’ve heard that referred to as the paradox of choice, that there was a book called The Paradox of Choice that talked about that idea. And I can definitely feel that in my life where we just have so much choice and freedom to make decisions about where are you gonna live? What kind of job are you going to pursue? Who are you going to date? All these kinds of choices. And that can be stressful. Freedom is a stressful thing.

Steven: Yeah. This is something that the original existential philosophers used to talk a lot about. So, like John Paul Sartre would say that life is the choices that you make and that it’s up to you to figure out what kind of life to live. And that sounds exhilarating. So many different choices. I get to choose, that’s so exciting. But at the same time, we’re responsible for all of the choices that we make then. We’re responsible for the life that we lead. And that brings with it a lot of anxiety. And I think if you go back in western history in the past, back to the medieval era, there really weren’t nearly as many choices to be made. That people would largely inherit the occupation of their parents.

That that was really quite common. Arranged marriages were still quite common in Europe and elsewhere around the world. So you didn’t who am I going to spend my life with? And also in at least much of Europe, there wasn’t really much of a competing sense of which God should you worship. It was kind of the town virtually everyone shared the same religion. You didn’t have to figure that out. And now people have to figure out what career, there’s thousands of different possible careers. They’re trying to find a partner and they’re on apps with, again, thousands of different options, so many different ways of getting it wrong. And society has been secularizing in a way that people are turning away from traditional religions.

But interestingly, they’re not that many of them are turning towards atheism. That’s increasing a little bit. What’s increasing the most though is people are becoming what they call spiritual but not religious, where they’re creating their own spiritual set of beliefs, This smorgasboard approach to the hereafter that I’m going to believe in horoscopes maybe and maybe some crystals, maybe I’ll meditate, maybe some yoga, that people will have this potpourri collection of different spiritual concerns. And again, it’s just like all the more things that people are responsible for, that they’re responsible for all these different aspects of our lives, and now they’re even responsible for the hereafter that they are choosing the path that they are going to take. And this brings with it just a huge amount of responsibility and what comes with that is this existential anxiety.

Zach: Do you think it’s true that by having all these choices, it’s almost like we’re drawn to the fact of how arbitrary our choices are and that can feel like a threat to meaning of sensing that ?

Steven: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I mean, I often look back at life choices I made. So my own adolescent angst experience or existential crisis that I had, it was when I was 19 years old and I had started off at university as a business student. And I lucked out at the age of 19. I got this great internship through this international exchange program where I got to work for a marketing company in Helsinki, Finland. And this had been at that time my dream job. I thought I want to get into this international marketing, and I’m so lucky to have this. And anyways, once I had this job, I immediately had this very strong feeling that this isn’t the right job for me. And I switched to psychology at that point, and I often look back, think, well, what if I hadn’t done that switch that the whole life path that I have been on since then would be changed. I have a very different career. I have a different social network. I would have many more business friends, and now I have more professor friends. I wouldn’t have met my wife. I would probably end up living in a different place. It’s this one decision and I’m living a very different life. And that’s kind of, uh, unsettling to think about sometimes. I mean, how many of these decisions are we making in life?

Zach: What does it mean? What does it all mean?

Steven: Exactly.

Zach: So I’m curious if you have examples from your personal life that you see as related to the Meaning Maintenance Model. And I could give a few examples if you want, but I’m curious if some come to mind for you examples of maybe having meaning threatened in one sphere and then ensuring it up in another.

Steven: Yeah. Well, one example for my own life is when I had my second existential crisis, which was my midlife crisis which I had at 48, and I got divorced. That’s a very unsettling time when life as I knew it– all the different aspects of my life– I’ve interpreted through the lens of being married to this particular person. So that was all very upended. And what I recognized that I was doing a lot of in the immediate aftermath of that was I had become a lot more nostalgic. I found myself visiting a lot of places from my past and reflecting on all these memories from my past. And my reactions actually are not unusual at all. This is a very common reaction that people have when they’re feeling that their lives are disrupted. They seek out nostalgia, and I think what nostalgia does here is that it restores a sense of meaning because you’re reflecting on your life story on who you are as a person and these different events that you had in your past that are part of you and are part of the reason that you became the person that you are today. That’s what you find is that when people are feeling, if they’re feeling lonelier or if they’re just feeling anxious or they’re feeling a little meaningless, they become a little more nostalgic. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right now it said that we’re living in the age of nostalgia, again that everything is retro. We see this on movies that are coming out. There a lot of remakes of movies in the past, whether it be things like Ghostbusters or things like Stranger Things isn’t a remake, but a big part of the show is the setting of the ’80s and revisiting this. I think people are quite anxious these days. This is an anxious time. This is one thing that we’re collectively doing is turning to the past. And in doing so, reflecting on these earlier chapters of our life story.

Zach: A small note here, in a previous episode, I talked to Jannine Lasaleta about the psychological factors involved in nostalgia. We examined why it is that nostalgia is so powerful and why we find it so meaningful. One thing we examined was how our feelings of nostalgia can make us more carefree with our money. That being one reason, companies like to try to use nostalgia in their advertising. Okay, back to the interview. 

For examples from my life, because I can definitely feel the things you talk about in my life. One example was similar to yours. If I’ve had an argument with my wife or if I feel socially isolated for some other reason, I can feel a desire to shift from social things to more intellectual pursuits. It is a need to compensate and put my sense of meaning in other things a little bit. Then the vice versa, if I feel like I’m not doing much on these intellectual pursuits or I feel like I’ve made a mistake or if I feel like I don’t really have a sense of community there, I’ll go back the other way and focus more on social things and… That’s just an example of how we can switch our focus of where we get our sense of meaning from, of what’s important throughout our lives, and even throughout the week or whatever. 

Steven: Exactly. Those are great examples of it. We just need to feel that life has meaning. We can get that through many different ways. It’s just what current thoughts are in our head, that our current thoughts we want to make sense and be some aspect of ourselves that give our lives meaning. That can be satisfied by so many different ways. People are all unique. They all have these unique meaning frameworks, unique things that give their lives meaning. So people turn to different things when they’re confronting these challenges of life.

Zach: Am I understanding correctly that would set your model, your theory apart from some other comparable theories is you’re focusing on the fluidity and the equal nature of where people can find their meaning, that it’s very fluid? Was I getting that right?

Steven: I think what our model is showing is that people can respond to a meaning threat in a very fluid way by turning to a very different domain of life. You don’t have to… For instance, there’s theories about needing belongingness and what a lot of findings show that when people feel lonely so that their belongingness is threatened, they try to seek out other relationships as a way of responding to that perceived lack of interpersonal connection. I think that’s very true that people definitely do that. 

But what we’re showing is that you can satisfy the underlying need for meaning that’s been disrupted by feeling lonelier interpersonal rejection by turning to something completely different, something that gives you feelings of certainty in some other areas or something that just reflects on core aspects of yourself. You can affirm yourself. You can dispel those bothersome feelings that originated from feeling intrapersonal rejection. It originated in this one specific domain, but can be tackled by a very different domain. Yes, that’s what’s unique about our theory.

Zach: A small note here, the meaning maintenance model has been compared to terror management theory, which is a theory that posits that our existential fears around death and mortality play a big role in our behavior and our desire to form meaning. The fluid of the aspect of the meaning maintenance model is one thing that makes it unique and sets it apart. If you’d like to read more about that, I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia entry for terror management theory. It mentions the meaning maintenance model there and how it relates. Also, Steven Heine and his colleagues this year did an analysis of the terror management literature. Back to the interview. 

So when I was young, a young man, I had some serious mental struggles. So I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about these kinds of topics and about how we build narratives and stories as ways to create meaning in our lives in a kind of way that’s taken for granted. Because we have these underlying narratives about our place in the world that we don’t really examine that allow us to lead so-called normal or functional lives, these narratives around who we are and our relationship to the world, our relationship to others. One thing that strikes me there is it just seems like there’s so many different kinds of stories we can create. There’s almost no limit on the kinds of stories humans can create because we are such storytellers. That’s such a part of who we are. 

I see that as related to the meaning maintenance model ideas in the sense that we can construct so many narratives that give us stability about our place in the world. It’s almost like there’s multiple solutions and a game theory sense of forming different narratives that allow us to feel comfortable and not just swimming in constant chaos and anxiety. We all have that as a major goal to reach that kind of stability and not feel anxious. So I’m curious what you think of all that? Do you see our drive to construct stories and narratives as related to our drive to construct meaning?

Steven: Yes, that’s a great point. I definitely think so. And that these meaning frameworks that we have about the world get can get very complex or the ones that we have about herself get very complex. They often can have some contradictory parts of, if you just think of like who am I, and you realize that well, okay, yesterday I was with my college friends and was acting quite silly. Then today I was at work and acting quite professional. Then I was driving and I was screaming obscenities at the passenger in the car beside me because he cut me off. 

Looking at this, you’ll see, well, what is the common thread here that don’t seem to be very consistent, or even just comparing me now versus when I was in high school or yesterday, I was dead set on losing some weight, but today I’m sitting in front of the TV with some Haagen-Dazs. 

In many ways, we’re not very consistent. I think this is the key value of stories here that we rely on to organize this information about ourselves and about our world that I think there’s a lot of theories in psychology that emphasizes that we experience the world through stories, that we have a story about who we are and we have stories about what the world is like. The nice thing about the stories is that they can simplify, they can connect all these disparate parts together that we can edit our stories, erase the parts that don’t fit in so well and make things fit a certain theme. I think then that people really try to defend these stories, like we’re committed to the stories, like this is who I am, like I’m committed to this idea. 

So yeah, if you encounter something that’s at odds with that, well, you need to defend your story and you need to focus on another aspect of your life story that fits with this theme that you think captures the real you. Yeah, I think we’re doing this.

But when we tell stories about ourselves and when we’re telling stories about the world like what is the world like, we are telling the story and we want it to be consistent. What’s remarkable is just how different people’s stories can be. If you just think like, what are people’s stories about the COVID pandemic? Some people see this as this is a huge threat to their wellbeing and their loved ones and a big challenge to society. Other people think this is all overblown or this is a hoax or billionaires are trying to control us by putting microchips in us. 

People have a story that is trying to connect these different events that are happening to us. Even though really, you would think it’s the same events that are happening in the world, at some level there must be some objective reality. But we perceive these events through the lenses of the story that we’re telling them. We tell very different stories, but we want our stories to be consistent. When you encounter new information, it’s got to be find a way to weave that into the story that we’re telling.

Zach: I focused a good amount on the podcast on us versus them political polarization and one thing that strikes me in that area that seems underexamined is how stressful it can be to have big conflicts and big differences and how we perceive reality and our narratives. Aside from the more obvious and superficial aspects of disagreeing with people and arguing over important topics, I think there’s this more fundamental anxiety around the meaning maintenance type ideas that we look around and we see others around us, our neighbors, the other people in our society is believing such vastly different things and just the knowledge that we see that meaning can be so hard to establish, that reality can be so hard to agree upon. It can be existentially stressful for the reasons that we’ve talked about. It’s like the cards having a different color, but on a really large scale we look around and we just perceive this kind of chaos of meaning around us. 

That to me, it strikes me that that can be feeding into the polarization in the sense that that threat to meaning that we perceive can make us really want to double down on our ideas and be like, oh, we’re going to decide this once and for all. This is the narrative and this is the right narrative. And we latch more strongly on to our narratives and such. That adds to the depolarization session. I’m curious if you agree with that playing a role in the polarization cycle.

Steven: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I think that this is one underappreciated cost of polarization. Polarization makes it hard to govern. It can lead to violence. There’s a lot of discussion of the familiar parts about it. But I think just as you were saying here that the fact that we don’t all share the same story about things, in some ways we’re not really living in the same shared reality anymore, that this can be really undermining for us. It’s because we want to feel certain, we want to feel that our understanding of the world is right so that way we feel that we can predict things and we can have control over things and we can act effectively. But we never really know what’s right and what’s true. We don’t have any direct access to that, so we have to infer it. 

One thing that makes us feel much more confident that our stories are right is when everyone around us agrees with us. If it’s like if everyone’s agreeing that this is the way things are, then you feel much more certain, I’ve got it all figured out. My understanding of the world is right. I know how to act. I know the rules of the game. I know what I need to do. But when we find out that half of the country has a completely different story for what’s going on, that the stories don’t overlap much at all. And so, here we are trying to feel a sense that yes, I know what’s happening. I know what to do in the world. Now it’s just being undermined by the fact that these other people are saying the exact opposite of what I’m saying. How can I be so sure that I’m right when half the country says the opposite? I think this is contributing to this level of uncertainty and anxiety that’s in the world today. 

This polarization here, which it’s been especially increasing in the US, there’s a number of different ways of measuring polarization so that the US in particular showed this big jump lately, and I think this is contributing to all of the tensions and the underlying anxieties that people are experiencing.

Zach: A note here, if you’re interested in learning more about polarization and how it’s been increasing in the world, the episode before this one was a talk about that. Back to the interview. 

I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how these ideas map over to mental illness. For example, it’s known that immigrants have higher rates of mental illness than average. This can be seen to relate maybe to meaning maintenance ideas and that it can be harder for immigrants to construct meaning in a pretty alien environment, they’re more aware of the kind of the chaos and the conflict conflicts and meaning than other people are who live in more than the social majority, culture and such. I’m curious if you have any thoughts you’d care to share about mapping over of those two things. 

Steven: Yeah, I think immigrants are often experiencing another kind of existential crisis. As a cultural psychologist, my field has a slogan or a mantra that says culture itself make each other up. It’s the idea that we live in this ecology of cultural meanings that tell us what is valued, what is appropriate, what is forbidden, what is tolerated. These are the norms that we live in. And that shapes our psychology. It shapes the way that we perceive the world make sense of it and try to work towards leading a satisfying and meaningful life. 

The challenge that immigrants face is that their selves have been shaped by one particular culture, and then they move to another different cultural framework where the meanings around them can be really quite different and they’re no longer a good match, their self is no longer a good match for the cultural environment around them. They go through what is termed culture shock is the experience that people go through, this distressing experience after they’ve moved to a new place that can persist for up to a few years, this period where one really isn’t a good match with the cultural meanings around one. 

This is something that’s very alienating and it creates a lot of distress so that immigrants have more health problems while they’re going through this culture shock period. This is like undermining their physical health and undermining their mental health. It’s only over time where they self-adjust to this new set of meanings that they are living with that they get over this this period of culture shock. 

The amount of culture shock that an immigrant experiences, one thing that predicts it is just how different are the two cultures that they are moving between. That if you’re moving between two of similar cultures, it’s not that hard to learn this new meaning framework. But if you’re moving between two very different cultures that differ in many aspects, then this is particularly challenging and people from more distant cultures have had more of this culture shock.

Zach: Yeah, they also say that kids who move around a good amount when they’re young are more likely to have emotional and psychological issues, and that seems related to that too. I can just imagine… Well, I definitely remember one of my psychological issues started when I had a panic attack on my first day of high school because I went to basically a new high school system with new people. Then also in college, the stress of going to college and new people and new environment, those are all stressful situations that force us to have to build up new sets of meanings and [inaudible].

Steven: Yeah, those kinds of transitions can create a lot of distress. Mental illness is more likely to be experienced when people are going through the kinds of anxieties that come from experiencing these meaning threats, that if people are feeling that their life doesn’t really make much sense, if people are feeling that their life is low in that sense of meaning, these people are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety and substance abuse and self-harm, that there’s real consequences, there’s a lot on the line for feeling that you’re living a meaningful life. These kinds of big transitions like that are the kinds of things that can pose some challenges for us. 

Zach: When it comes to the best reading you’d recommend for people who want to dig into these concepts more, what would you recommend? Maybe your 2006 paper or what else?

Steven: Yes, in addition to our 2006 paper, I like a 2010 paper that I wrote with Travis Proulx called The Frog in Kierkegaard’s Beer. This paper, the title of it is referring to this observation by Kierkegaard who is contrasting experience of death with the surprise that you would feel if you were drinking a beer and you would discover a live frog in it, just it’s exactly that it’s the same kind of thing, this thing that we can’t fully process and make sense of. Anyways, in that paper we describe a slightly more up to date version of our meaning maintenance model. 

I also like a paper also done with Travis Proulx in 2009 called Connections from Kafka where we were exploring how when people feel threats to their meaning, including by reading surreal stories that don’t make sense. Kafka was a master at that like eliciting this very alienating feeling of like what is going on, that people are primed to seek out meaning and they can actually learn new things a little better, that they pick up on some patterns that they are less likely to detect when they’re not feeling this sense of meaninglessness. 

I’m working on a book right now. It’s not going to be out for another… It’s supposed to be out next year. It’s supposed to be done next year. I’ll need a good tailwind to finish it then. The working title is called Navigating the Absurd: The Science of Existentialism, where I’m exploring really the kind of ideas we’ve been talking about here in this podcast, just how this desire for meaning that we have, how it shapes the ways that we interact with the world and that we try to make sense of things, try to make sense of ourself and we try to pursue a meaningful life.

Zach: Yeah, that you get on the subject of literature changing our worldview and using these meaning threatening situations and narratives to make us see the world in new ways. There’s positive aspects of that. For example, that’s why people like one of the benefits of hallucinogenics is breaking up people’s way of seeing the world and making them see it in new ways. Also on art, like you mentioned Kafka, I think of Flannery O’Connor. One of her things was trying to have these shocking endings to some of her short stories that would make people see the world in a different way. She had a religious goal there because she was Catholic, but the same idea applied where she was basically trying to threaten their meaning a bit and make them see the world as the mysterious and the mind-blowing thing it was in that sense.

Steven: Yeah. Well, I do think art is an especially powerful way for eliciting this feeling, the feeling that we get when things don’t make sense. I like to label that feeling the uncanny, it’s something that Flannery called it too. It’s often described as a feeling of the unfamiliar familiar so that you’re sensing something that feels normal, but there’s something not quite right. This is what the surrealists I think did this especially well, paintings by like René Magritte or Salvador Dali, films like David Lynch, and it was especially good at eliciting this feeling. I think art is just so good at eliciting this emotional reaction. Really, I think it’s stemming from the emotion that we get, that feeling that something’s not right and that’s prompting this. 

Your point about hallucinogenic drugs I think is a great one there. Now it looks like some of these drugs are going to be approved it looks like FDA approval for use in therapy. Why there’s so much excitement around them is because they really do seem to be able to have this enduring change of how you make sense of your life, how you make sense of your world. The existing kinds of meds that people are prescribed when they’re facing mental illness challenges are ones that you need to be regularly taking, these antidepressants that you need to take every day to help people to function at their best. 

Whereas these initial trials that are coming out of these studies with the psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and LSD and MDMA and ketamine that people are having these lasting changes from having this one very intense experience when they I think are connecting themselves to some new transcendent concerns that they hadn’t realized before. And they are perceiving their life differently. And they have memories for those, that those seem to have provide some lasting changes. So there’s a lot of excitement about the potential that these drugs have in helping people to cope with the many challenges that this new era of anxiety is throwing at us. 

Zach: Yeah, I think the interesting thing about the threats to meaning is it can be negative, of course, but there’s also an excitement and a mystery about it because it opens up these new ways of viewing the world as exciting and mysterious and strange. That can have a negative, you can view that negatively or as scary or you can view it on the other side of the coin as that’s exciting, that’s making the world a wild place now in ways that it wasn’t before for some people. So there’s different sides of the threat demeaning coin, I guess.

Steven: Right, yeah. I think that’s why it’s important that that these new therapies are being conducted in a therapeutic context where there is someone there to help lead people through their experience. Because there is some risk to people just that they talk about in a certain matter a great deal when people are exploring with these psychedelic drugs that if they’re in the wrong mindset, it can be a very frightening devastating experience. So it can go both ways. That’s why I think that all of these trials that are going on are, together with using the context of a guide, [crosstalk] through.

Zach: Yeah, bad trips are a real thing. Okay, well, this has been great. Steven, thanks a lot for your time and I appreciate you coming on.

Steven: All right. Thanks a lot for having me. It was a lot of fun.

Zach: That was professor Steven Heine talking about the meaning maintenance model. 

One of the big takeaways for me in examining this research is how threats to meaning might make us cling more to the status quo: in other words, threats to meaning can make us more intolerant of those who violate the rules of our group, and make us cling more closely to the rules and stereotypical traits of our group. The reason I initially found Steven’s research was that I was interested in that exact idea: how extreme polarization, in making it more apparent just how much our perceptions of reality can diverge from our neighbors, can make us want to cling more strongly to our group’s narratives, and how that itself can be an amplifying effect on polarization. And if you want to read more on that idea, Steven and his colleagues’ 2006 paper on the meaning maintenance model goes into more detail on how threats to meaning can be related to people’s attempts to reinforce their group identity. 

I want to thank Matthew Hornsey, who’s a group psychology researcher and who I interviewed in a previous episode. He answered some questions I had about this topic, and gave me some links to papers that eventually led to me reaching out to Steven Heine. 

If you enjoyed this podcast, I’d recommend checking out some other episodes I have on some related topics. For example, one episode is a talk with existential psychologist Kirk Schneider, and in that one we talk about how the strangeness and mystery of existence can affect us psychologically, and how that might relate to our political conflicts. 

For more information about this podcast, go to I have entries for the episodes that include links to papers and other resources we talk about. 

If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family. The more people listen to it, the more I’m encouraged to do more interviews. 

Thanks for listening,