Having only recently recovered from the Flu, the constant headache I’ve been suffering for the past 24 hours may well be due to my inability to keep up with a healthy intake of caffeine while ill. My wife assures me, that with a conscientious recaffeination strategy I can be well on the road to wellbeing soon enough.
That’s good. Hopeful, even.
And if the constant headache makes me question the meaning and value of life, then it’s a comfort to know that a dose of acetaminophen can help with the headache AND with the existential angst. The Psychological Science paper, The common pain of surrealism and death: Acetaminophen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats tells us not to worry about existence… pop a pill. Well, they don’t actually say that, but they do offer evidence suggesting that it may help.
The research by Daniel Randles, Steven J. Heine and Nathan Santos of the University of British Columbia, is based on the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM), which “focuses on people’s compensatory responses to violations of expectations, termed meaning threats. The model argues that any perceived meaning threat produces unpleasant arousal that often lies outside of awareness, and is non-specific to the causal stimulus.” They explain that people will respond to these disturbances “by affirming any available unrelated schema to which they are committed. These affirmations of intact meaning frameworks serve to dispel the unpleasant sense that something is wrong.”
To test this, among other things subjects were exposed to David Lynch’s Rabbits, which is defined by its lack of any discernable meaning (vs a control screening) and then either given 1000mg of acetaminophen of placebo.
Now here’s the fun part. How do people respond to disturbances of meaning (AKA existential angst)? Right, by affirming any available unrelated schema… like, say, the criminal justice system. Because the study was taking place soon after a riot incited by the Vancouver Canucks failure to claim the Stanley Cup, students were asked how severely rioters should be punished.
You know the answer, it’s in the title, but by how much?
I found this article to be really entertaining. Another common method for testing people’s meaning – threats is to ask how high bail should be set for someone being tried for prostitution. How can you not read this stuff? You can download a copy of the original article as a word doc here. Or read someone else’s account of it here.