Measuring Meaning Across the Lifespan using Events as Units of Measure

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Julia Penn Shaw, SUNY- Empire State College, Troy, NY
Aristotle advised us to ‘cut nature at its joints’ and use measures appropriate to the subject.  An “Event”, when carefully defined, is an effective unit of measure for constructs of personal meaning from age 10 through the lifespan.  In this study, an event has four attributes; 1) one point of view; 2) one anchor or symbol; 3) one time and place; and 4) one internal representation of the event.  These four attributes create a ‘single abstraction’ (Fischer, 1980). Single abstractions are derived from an appropriate story by children entering formal operational thinking, and continue to be used across the lifespan as ways to store meaningful events and to manipulate them in relation to each other.  An example of an event as a single abstraction from the source story is ‘To the native boy at this point in the story, the conqueror’s sword represented the impending destruction of his unsuspecting people.’ Eighty-eight educated and competent participants in two gender-balanced groups, age 18 through 35, and age 40 – 86, were selected to participate in this study. Each participant selected ten ‘events’ from the same source story and wrote the ‘symbol’ (e.g., sword) and the meaning (e.g., impending destruction of his people) on ten separate blank business cards, which are easy to manipulate. They then ‘arranged them in a personally meaningful’ way.  Prior work assured that ten cards was the best number for participants to manipulate meaningfully. Participants, without prompting, produced four types of personally-meaningful arrangements, each of which was used as a dimension for building meaning: 1) story; 2) partition; 3) ranking; and 4) image.  There were arranged in four levels of complexity: 1) simple (e.g., only one story); 2) compound (e.g., a story with partitions within; 3) complex (e.g., a story with partitions within a visible image; and 4) systems (e.g. one story from two different systems). Examples of these data will be demonstrated in the presentation. Results indicated (p= .01) that the younger age group used fewer numbers of dimensions for meaning (e.g., simple and compound) than did the older age group (e.g., compound, complex, and systems). There were noticeable gender differences in the older group as well (p= .05) with men having abstract, neutral/negative meaning themes, and women having personal, neutral/positive meaning themes.  These results provide a discretely countable determination for the increase in complexity of meaning-making from early adulthood to late adulthood. They also indicate that, just as we use dimensions to interact in physical space, we use (different) dimensions of meaning to interact in meaning space.