Meaning occurs when people connect their experiences in memory. We understand the concept of a healthy meal when we mentally connect the various foods that our culture teaches us belong together to form a healthy meal. We may laugh when a cartoonist violates the concept of a healthy meal by picturing different kinds of chocolates. The concept, healthy meal, is a unit of meaning. Psychologists have referred to these mental concepts as schema.
The concept of meaning may be traced to existential philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus. Psychological scientists examine meaning by looking at the way people link experiences. Frederic Bartlett (1886-1969) was an English psychologist at Cambridge University who developed schema theory. Schema are mental organizations of knowledge gained from experience within one's culture.
Larger organizational sets are called worldviews. Worldviews organize many schema into an orientation to life. Some writers refer to worldviews as meaning frameworks. Outside of psychology, some disciplines write about seeing the world through different lenses.
Meaning can be violated when a new experience cannot be explained or understood as a part of a person's existing schema. On a larger scale, the experience does not make sense in terms of a person's worldview. When faced with experiences that do not "make sense," people work to restore meaning. Sometimes this work can impact other aspects of thinking, which seem unrelated to the experience.
For years, Europeans only saw white swans, but black swans exist. An easy modification of a schema for "swan" adds the knowledge that swans can be either black or white.
Some cultures have schema for the way women and men ought to dress and behave. When people violate the expectations, those with traditional schema work to make sense of the new experience.
A common example of a worldview is a person's religion, which includes a large set of schema about God or supernatural beings and how the supernatural and natural worlds interact. When significant experiences violate one's understanding of the way the world works, people seek answers from their religious leaders, modify their beliefs, change their religion, or give up on religion altogether.
Following is a quote from the abstract by Heine and his colleagues (2006). See their article for details on the model.
"The meaning maintenance model (MMM) proposes that people have a need for meaning; that is, a need to perceive events through a prism of mental representations of expected relations that organizes their perceptions of the world. When people's sense of meaning is threatened, they reaffirm alternative representations as a way to regain meaning-a process termed fluid compensation. According to the model, people can reaffirm meaning in domains that are different from the domain in which the threat occurred. Evidence for fluid compensation can be observed following a variety of psychological threats, including most especially threats to the self, such as self-esteem threats, feelings of uncertainty, interpersonal rejection, and mortality salience. People respond to these diverse threats in highly similar ways, which suggests that a range of psychological motivations are expressions of a singular impulse to generate and maintain a sense of meaning."
The Meaning Maintenance Model has been proposed as an alternative to Terror Management Theory.
Heine, S., Proulx, T., & Vohs, K. (2006). The Meaning Maintenance Model: On the coherence of social motivation. Personality and Social Psychological Review, 10, 88-111.