Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition

By Gordon B. Moskowitz | Go to book overview

2
Megan M. Thompson
Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, Toronto
Michael E. Naccarato
Backbone Media, Inc., Toronto Kevin C. H. Parker
Kingston General Hospital, Kingston
Gordon B. Moskowitz
Princeton University

The Personal Need for Structure and Personal Fear of Invalidity Measures: Historical Perspectives, Current Applications, and Future Directions

Without too much absurdity from a functionalistic point of view, a biogenic need for structure or meaning could be postulated and hostility to alien events be accounted for in terms of threat to the structure or meaning attached to the situation. It is not necessary to posit the tendency to structure as a biological imperative, because, native or not, the making of some kind of sense out of a situation appears invariable and unquestionably essential to the prediction of recurrences and differences in the surrounding world. To cope adequately with the environment, even to survive in it, seems to necessitate the ability to read it or define it in some degree of veridicality at least.

– Harvey (1963)

Attaining meaning has been characterized as a primary human goal. Each person, each stimulus that meets our senses changes our environment, at times challenging our sense of knowing what to expect from the environment. Without structuring this array into coherent units that provide meaning, the world would be experienced as chaos. This is a disturbing and unsettling state that people are driven to avoid/reduce (Peirce, 1877/1957; Dewey, 1929). Why? First, for survival, an organism needs to know both whether immediate danger exists and whether stimuli that satisfy need states are present. Second, aside from promoting survival, the experience of knowing serves the drive to approach pleasant/beneficial and avoid unpleasant/harmful experiences. Without meaning being attached to the stimuli around us we would have no way to determine what stimuli in our environment are pleasurable (and perhaps species-promoting) versus painful (and perhaps species-hindering). Perception, categorization, inference, and memory are the cognitive tools humans are equipped with to provide the meaning that will shape subsequent action toward stimuli. Bruner (1957a) referred to this as categories serving a predictive function (noting that the predictions that are derived from one's inferences are of varying degrees of veridicality). James (1907/1992) stated these cognitive processes produce the meaning that allows us to anticipate, expect, act, and react, thus linking cognition with pragmatism. Third, attaining meaning is also a desired end state in and of itself. Doubt is experienced as unpleasant, and attaining meaning (knowing) allows that unpleasant state to be removed. This fact led Heider (1944) to conclude that humans possess a causal drive—a drive to establish a set of causal explanations that account for the stimuli in the environment. Heider assumed this was “a third basic drive beside the drives for self conservation and for the conservation of the species” (p. 359). Finally, Heider (1958) described this causal drive as not only reducing the unpleasantness of doubt, but also providing a sense of mastery or control over the environment. This sense of determinism allows one to feel as if the universe is not random, which is essential for both avoiding feelings of helplessness and initiating appropriate action.

Given the central role that the attainment of knowledge plays in human functioning, it is not surprising that the processes through which and the manner in which meaning is sought represent fundamental pursuits in many areas of psychology and philosophy. How meaning about the social world is attained is an essential concern of social cognition and the dominant theoretical concern of this chapter. Our focus is on individual differences in how people tolerate the existence of uncertainty. Although it is believed that imposing meaning on the

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