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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The shared psychological process underlying different forms of uncertainty Randles, Daniel


How do people react when their meaningful worldviews are violated? What does it even mean to experience a lack of meaning? Drawing on work from both social and cognitive psychology, I advance two main hypotheses. First, humans employ a single domain-general process for recognizing and interpreting all violations of meaning and unexpected experiences. Second, as a result of this generality, all violations of meaning can trigger responses that have more to do with this broad process than with the specific problem at hand. Eight studies support these predictions from a number of methodological approaches. Experiences as superficially different as cognitive dissonance, mortality salience, and viewing surreal art all motivate people to affirm important beliefs that are not directly relevant to the experience. Acetaminophen, a drug known to inhibit physical pain and feelings of rejection, also prevents this motivation to affirm following meaning violations. In an ERP paradigm, acetaminophen inhibits activation associated with consciously recognizing that a mistake was made. Finally, these effects appear to occur spontaneously during everyday moments and are not restricted solely to artificial laboratory experiments. These findings speak to a broad process for identifying mismatches between one’s mental model and reality. Discussion focuses on the implications of this process for studying a range of experiences, including uncertainty, meaning, goal frustration, dissonance, and existential anxiety.

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