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On the meaningfulness of behavior: An expectancy x value approach

Abstract

Our research examines people’s concept of ‘meaningful behavior’ from an expectancy x value perspective. Specifically, we argue that people consider two elements when inferring the meaningfulness of behavior: the value of the goals that the behavior relates to and the degree to which the behavior is useful for the achievement of these goals. A series of five studies demonstrates that behavior is considered to be ‘meaningful’ if it is highly instrumental for a highly valued goal. Our expectancy x value approach offers a straightforward yet crucial perspective of how people infer whether or not everyday life behaviors are meaningful to them. The implications of our findings for research on meaningfulness, meaning-regulation, and sense making are discussed.

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Notes

  1. The key terms in the scale’s items were originally modeled after concepts used to refer to meaning in for example Steger et al. (2006, pp. 80, 85) and Baumeister (1991; pp. 16, 49); the items were successfully used in our prior research (Van Tilburg & Igou 2011c ).

  2. Levene’s test indicated a violation of the assumption of equal variances across conditions, F(3, 74) = 5.37, p < 0.01. The analysis with log10 transformed meaninglessness scores yielded similar results. High goal value led to lower levels of perceived meaninglessness of behavior than low goal value, F(1, 74) = 7.99, p < 0.01, η2 = 0.10, and high instrumentality of behavior led to lower meaninglessness ratings than low instrumentality, F(1, 74) = 6.71, p = 0.01, η2 = 0.08. Importantly, also the critical interaction between goal value and instrumentality emerged, F(1, 74) = 14.47, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.16. Details can be provided on request.

  3. We identified outliers based on the criteria based on Tabachnick and Fidell (2007; pp. 73–76). Regarding univariate outliers, participants with very large standardized scores (Z > 3.29, p < 0.001) were excluded. Regarding multivariate outliers, participants’ Mahalanobis distances were computed based on the variables of the design, but excluding age and gender. The mahalanobis distances were then compared to a χ2 distribution and those participants exceeding a critical value with a α-level of 0.001 were considered to be outliers.

  4. Similar results were obtained when including participants’ assigned group as between subjects variable and treating each of the behaviors as group-dependent indicator, as analyzed in a 2 (Goal Value) × 2 (Instrumentality) × 2 (Group) mixed-ANOVA. This analysis yielded the critical three-way interaction, F(1, 87) = 6.54, p = 0.01, η2 = 0.07, and a two-way interaction under high goal value, F(1, 87) = 9.15, p < 0.01, η2 = 0.10, but not under low goal value (F < 1). Details can be provided on request.

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Acknowledgments

This research was in part funded by a PhD scholarship grant from the Irish Research Council for the Social Sciences and Humanities (IRCHSS).

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Correspondence to Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg.

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van Tilburg, W.A.P., Igou, E.R. On the meaningfulness of behavior: An expectancy x value approach. Motiv Emot 37, 373–388 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-012-9316-3

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Keywords

  • Meaning
  • Value
  • Instrumentality
  • Self-regulation