Meaning in Life
In seeking to explain why people embrace certain political ideologies or prejudicial attitudes, psychologists have often suggested that these provide people with the sense that their existence has meaning. I treat these ideas as more than mere hand-waving—my research is centrally concerned with understanding how such perspectives relate to the perception that life is meaningful. People often think of meaning in life as existing on a pedestal. Yet, to understand this important experience, we must place it in the context of the everyday experiences that people have and embrace. My research shows that life tends to be imbued with meaning, and that it arises from moral, amoral, and even immoral sources. My varied research experiences have required me to develop deep expertise in the areas of the science of well-being, political psychology, and the social psychology of prejudice. In addition, it has honed my skills as a correlational and experimental researcher. Broadly speaking, my research bridges the science of well-being (particularly meaning in life) with political psychology and mainstream social psychology.
Authoritarianism was first studied by psychologists following WWII in an attempt to understand the behavior of Nazis. Given the proliferation of authoritarian movements in the modern political landscape, it is clear that authoritarian dispositions are not simply an issue of the past. Indeed, those aspects of authoritarianism that reflect aggression and group-based dominance were uniquely associated with support for Trump over other Republican candidates during the 2016 Presidential Primaries. My research suggests that one of the reasons people find authoritarian ideology appealing is because it serves as a source of meaning in life. As a secular worldview, it serves a similar existential function to religious worldviews.
Authenticity and the Dark Tetrad
The robust link between authenticity—being who was really is in a variety of contexts—and well-being is unquestionable. Is this still the case when one’s true self is narcissistic, callous, and manipulative? Our research shows that the link between authenticity and well-being is weaker among those with such “dark” personality traits. Thus, there may be benefits to concealing one’s true self, if that self is cold-hearted and manipulative.
Much of my research bridges together disparate bodies of literature in the context of well-being, and meaning in life. Other ongoing projects include studying the effects of exposure to implicit vs. explicit prejudice, avenues and obstacles to authenticity as a function of minority-group identity, the self-organizational properties of enemyship, the existential function of schadenfreude for those who believe the world is unjust, and how to leverage pluralism and non-pluralism to boost the existential appeal of egalitarian values.