Does Meaning Affirmation Reduce Defensiveness? The Role of Recalling Cherished Relationships.

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Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren

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Humans desire meaning. Drawing from Terror Management Theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) and the Meaning Maintenance Model (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), we examined potential buffers for threats to meaning. According to TMT, people find meaning in cultural worldviews. When people are faced with challenges to their worldviews, they defend their worldview to regain meaning. Similarly, the MMM suggests that various sources of meaning (belonging, self-esteem, certainty, symbolic immortality) are interchangeable; affirming one domain may reduce the reliance on another source of meaning (Van Tongeren & Green, 2010). Based on this, we predicted that bolstering someone’s meaning through meaning affirmation would buffer them a subsequent meaning threat (e.g., criticism of their beliefs). We hypothesized that those who affirmed their meaning would be less defensive than those who had not been affirmed. Participants were 79 self-identified Christian students who participated in a between-subjects design, randomly assigned to a relationship affirmation, self affirmation, or neutral condition. Next, participants were asked to write a short essay about an issue important to them. They were then told their essay would be exchanged with another participant’s essay but instead were given a fixed essay that was critical of religion and fixed negative feedback on their own essay (i.e., a meaning threat to religious participants). Next, participants were given a chance to the rate the author of the fixed essay they read. There was a significant effect of priming condition on author rating, supporting our hypothesis that participants in the relationship affirmation condition rated the author’s essay significantly higher than participants in the neutral condition. This suggests that relationship affirmation can buffer from meaning threats and reduce worldview defensive.


This work was supported by a grant from The John Templeton Foundation.

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