Willem Sleegers: "Meaning and Pupillometry: The Role of Physiological Arousal in Meaning Maintenance"

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Willem Sleegers: "Meaning and Pupillometry: The Role of Physiological Arousal in Meaning Maintenance"

On September 29, 2017 Willem Sleegers successfully defended the PhD thesis entitled "Meaning and Pupillometry: The Role of Physiological Arousal in Meaning Maintenance"

prof. dr. Ilja van Beest

dr. Travis Proulx


The goal of the present dissertation is to examine the role of physiological arousal in meaning maintenance, using the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) as the guiding theoretical framework.

The MMM is an integrative model in the existential psychology literature to explain both what meaning is and how people respond to lost meaning. The central idea is that people adopt sets of beliefs that allow them to make sense of the world. Through the adoption of these beliefs, people structure their experiences and come to expect specific relationships, whether it is the color of objects, the behavior of people, or the unfolding of world events. According to the MMM, meaning is found in these expected relationships.

However, people’s beliefs are imperfect, causing them to regularly face events that violate their expectations. This violates their sense of meaning. The MMM states that the loss of meaning results in a state of aversive physiological arousal, which motivates people to perform compensatory behavior to reduce the arousal. This compensatory behavior can consist of reinterpreting the event to be consistent with one’s prior beliefs, by changing one’s beliefs, or by affirming unrelated, yet meaningful, beliefs from a different domain.

In this dissertation we review the literature on potential physiological mechanisms for the arousal-behavior link that is predicted by the MMM. Additionally, we performed experimental studies in which we assessed arousal through the use of pupillometry. Pupillometry is the technique of measuring the size and reactivity of the pupil. The pupil displays small fluctuations that do not serve any visual function. Instead, these small fluctuations reflect a state of physiological arousal. We assessed participant’s pupil reactivity while presenting them with a variety of meaning violations, such as misconceptions, social exclusion, and perceptual anomalies in order to demonstrate that people display heightened arousal after experiencing meaning violations, and that this arousal predicts subsequent compensatory behavior. Together, our findings offer support for the MMM’s tenet that arousal plays a significant role in the maintenance of meaning.

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