Thursday, January 08, 2009

Unconscious threats increase moral affirmations

Proulx and Heine probe the "meaning-maintenance model," that proposes that whenever an individual's mental representations of expected associations (e.g., scripts, schemas, paradigms) are violated by unexpected experiences, this provokes an effort to regain a sense of meaning. The abstract, followed by a bit of explanation:
The meaning-maintenance model posits that threats to schemas lead people to affirm unrelated schemas. In two studies testing this hypothesis, participants who were presented with a perceptual anomaly (viz., the experimenter was switched without participants consciously noticing) demonstrated greater affirmation of moral beliefs compared with participants in a control condition. Another study investigated whether the schema affirmation was prompted by unconscious arousal. Participants witnessed the changing experimenter and then consumed a placebo. Those who were informed that the placebo caused side effects of arousal did not show the moral-belief affirmation observed in the previous studies, as they misattributed their arousal to the placebo. In contrast, those who were not informed of such side effects demonstrated moral-belief affirmation. The results demonstrate the functional interchangeability of different meaning frameworks, and highlight the role of unconscious arousal in prompting people to seek alternative schemas in the face of a meaning threat.
A bit more explanation:
In the changing-experimenter condition, while participants answered questions about entertainment, the female research assistant conducting the experiment was surreptitiously switched with another, identically dressed female experimenter. The first experimenter went to a filing cabinet to retrieve the next questionnaire, and after opening the filing cabinet, she stepped back and was replaced by the second experimenter, who shut the cabinet and continued the experiment (a video of the change can be viewed on the Web at In the mortality-salience condition, participants completed a standard mortality-salience manipulation by answering two questions about their own death. Previous studies have demonstrated that reminding participants of their eventual death provokes compensatory affirmation of alternative meaning frameworks. The mortality-salience condition was included to compare its results with those of our changing-experimenter condition.

To test affirmation of moral beliefs, subjects read a hypothetical report about the arrest of a prostitute and were asked to set a bond for the prostitute as if they were a judge reviewing the case. The rationale for this latter measure is that people are motivated to maintain their cultural worldview and will seek to punish individuals who act in ways that are inconsistent with that worldview. Participants in the changing-experimenter and mortality-salience conditions set a higher bond than did participants in the control condition


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