Experimental Existential Psychology (XXP), Social Neuroscience & Threat Management
Social Neuroscience & Threat Management
In the research area “Experimental Existential Psychology, Social Neuroscience & Threat Management”, we use a biopsychosocial perspective to investigate the processes that shape our experience of and coping with threat.
Threat as an experience of discrepancies
People strive for consistency and congruence, that is, they seek a fit between the social environment in which they find themselves, their inner experience and desires, and their behavior. We assume that three components are of central importance: the perception of the situation (reality), one’s current desires (motives), and expectations about what will happen (cognitive focus). When there is a conflict within or between two of these three components, discrepancy arises and with it the motivation to reduce this discrepancy (for an overview see: Jonas & Mühlberger, 2017).A discrepancy can be a violation of expectations, a failure to fulfill real motives, or an expected need fulfillment failure (see “Social Neuroscience and Threat Management”). A violation of expectations arises from a discrepancy between cognitive focus and reality. For example, people expect to have certain freedoms but experience that their freedoms are restricted (e.g., Sittenthaler, Steindl, & Jonas, 2015; Steindl, Jonas, Sittenthaler, Traut-Mattausch & Jonas, 2015).Non-fulfillment of motives arises from the discrepancy between motives and reality. For example, individuals have a desire to receive advice from a trusted advisor; however, the advisor does not seem trustworthy but only self-interested (Mackinger, Jonas, & Mühlberger, 2017) or employees want to fulfill their obligations but are suddenly confronted with customer complaints (Traut-Mattausch, Wagner, Pollatos, & Jonas, 2015).Expected nonfulfillment of motives occurs when individuals expect that their motives cannot be fulfilled. For example, when people strive for self-preservation, control, security, or meaning, but have been reminded of their own mortality, loss of control, insecurity, or meaninglessness (Agroskin, Jonas, Klackl, & Prentice, 2016).Perceptions of discrepancy occur at a personal level, meaning that the same situation is not perceived as a discrepancy and thus a threat by every individual, but circumstances such as current cognitive focus, situational needs, and salient motives influence how situations are perceived as threats.
From BIS to BAS – how inhibition can turn into agency.
The perception of discrepancies often leads people into an unpleasant state of inhibition, which can be described by activation of the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), which they can overcome by motivational reorientation, such as action orientation (mediated by the behavioral approach system (BAS). These actions can be destructive but also constructive. They can occur alone, but also in social interactions.In the process model of threat and defense, we describe two strategies we use to respond to threats, namely resolution and palliation. While resolution typically targets the root cause of the threat-inducing problem, palliation targets unwanted affects, feelings, and emotions that result from the threat. This is a small subset of our research findings:
- Reflecting on one’s own mortality and uncontrollability of life increases late positive potential (a neurophysiological indicator of motivated attention) and activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a key region of the BIS (Klackl, Jonas, & Kronbichler, 2013; Klackl, Jonas & Fritsche, 2018).
- High self-esteem can attenuate the effects of threat perception, thus acting as a “fear buffer.” Self-esteem moderated the influence of a mortality manipulation on the anterior insula and bilateral ventrolateral prefrontal and medial orbitofrontal cortex (Klackl, Jonas, & Kronbichler, 2013).
- The illusion of control increases reward positivity and stimulus-preceding negativity (Mühlberger, Angus, Jonas, Harmon-Jones, & Harmon-Jones, 2016).
- People with a high need for control respond to mortality salience with increased right frontal asymmetry-an indicator of reduced approach motivation or increased avoidance motivation (Agroskin, Jonas, Klackl, & Prentice, 2016).
Applied threat management
Let us return to the difference between cause-oriented resolution and emotion-oriented palliation. Although palliation is not bad per se, and in many cases unproblematic, it can be argued that resolution is preferable to palliation in many cases if individuals and societies want to achieve goals. For example, global problems such as climate change can only be solved by resolution, not palliation. Our goal is to develop interventions that promote constructive (usually resolutive) approaches to threats.Climate change communication usually tries to promote resolution-oriented coping with climate change, but often uses threatening information which is known to elicit palliation (Uhl-Haedicke, Jonas & Klackl, 2016; Uhl-Haedicke, Klackl, Hansen & Jonas, 2018). Our research aims at identifying the conditions under which threat helps climate change communication to succeed or fail.Whether or not people feel that something is is a threat, what exactly they think is at stake, and whether they engage in resolution or not, depends to a large extent on their political, ideological, and ethical values, most of which are not always shared by everyone in society. Our research explores whether taking these ideological differences into account can make individuals and societies more likely to resolve threats.
|Agroskin, D., Jonas, E., Klackl, J., & Prentice, M. (2016). Inhibition Underlies the Effect of High Need for Closure on Cultural Closed-Mindedness under Mortality Salience. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(1583), 1–16. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01583|
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|Jonas, E. (2015). Fairness lohnt sich! In M. Dimitriou & G. Schweiger (Eds.), Fairness und Fairplay (pp. 23–49). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-08675-6_2|
|Jonas, E., McGregor, I., Klackl, J., Agroskin, D., Fritsche, I., Holbrook, C., … Quirin, M. (2014). Threat and Defense. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (1st ed., Vol. 49, pp. 219–286). Elsevier Inc. http://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-800052-6.00004-4|
|Jonas, E., & Steindl, C. (n.d.). Editorial: Social cognition, motivation, and interaction: How do people respond to threats in social interactions?|
|Klackl, J., Jonas, E., & Fritsche, I. (2017). Neural evidence that the behavioral inhibition system is involved in existential threat processing. Manuscript submitted for publication.|
|Klackl, J., Jonas, E., & Kronbichler, M. (2013). Existential neuroscience: Neurophysiological correlates of proximal defenses against death-related thoughts. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(3), 333–340. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss003|
|Klackl, J., Jonas, E., & Kronbichler, M. (2014). Existential neuroscience: Self-esteem moderates neuronal responses to mortality-related stimuli. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 1754–1761. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst167|
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|Mühlberger, C., Angus, D. J., Jonas, E., Harmon-Jones, C., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2016). Perceived control increases the reward positivity and stimulus preceding negativity. Psychophysiology, 0. http://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12786|
|Proulx, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). The Five “A”s of Meaning Maintenance: Finding Meaning in the Theories of Sense-Making. Psychological Inquiry, 23(4), 317–335. http://doi.org/10.1080/1047840X.2012.702372|