We seek meaning. We seek certainty. We seek explanations. Meeseeks purpose.
People want to make sense of the world on almost every level of experience. David Eagleman, in his book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain,” said, “Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.” This construction is our sense-making ability.
Looking through the scientific lens is a way of making sense of the universe. Naive psychology students who observe other people to pin-point their personalities is another example. Us telling others why we did something in the past and explaining it retroactively is also sense-making. Relying on astrology to explain negative life events is sense-making. Sense-making is particularly prominent in justifying and explaining uncontrollable bad events. People use spirituality, religion, cosmic powers, karma, etc. to reconcile negative events that make no sense to them. Even reading is sense-making. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, wrote – “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
In a previous article, I wrote about how humans recognize patterns. In this article, we’ll focus on a broader, subjective aspect of being human that tries to apply patterns to our experiences: Sense-making and meaning-making.
Karl E. Weick, the pioneer of the sense-making theory, defines sense-making as “the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing.” In simpler words, sense-making is a continuous mental activity that tries to interpret everything we have experienced in ways we can accept or believe. It is a process to justify actions and behaviors that have already happened, and we adopt the most plausible justifications even though they are inaccurate. Sense-making gives rise to meaning and structure by reducing chaos into relevant, digestible details.
For example: If you purchase an expensive phone like the iPhone, you can make sense of your action by explaining your decision-making process as such: “It’s a really powerful phone with good customer support and it looks great.” However, that could be your retroactive justification for your purchase. The actual reason may be more about choosing a popular option without wanting to do the research to fit your needs.
Sensemaking is the process through which people work to understand issues or events that are novel, ambiguous, confusing, or in some other way violate expectations.Sally Maitlis and Marlys K Christianson
Sense-making is particularly relevant in confusing, ambiguous, and uncertain situations that we are not prepared to deal with because that is when we need a way to justify and explain things. When we have thoughts like “I don’t understand why he did that” or “why do bad things happen to good people?”, we are in a sense-making deficit, and we are attempting to reconcile what happened in our lives. That is sense-making.
Researchers consider sense-making to be a deep, fundamental motivation for humans. That is, humans strive to make sense of events around them. Including their own actions, others’ actions, and circumstances. Our innate drive to make sense of the world is a way to simplify our perspective of the world.
Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s search for meaning – an excellent must-read book about how he survived the Nazi, says humans are driven to seek meaning and purpose in life, even if all you have around you is doom. Our meaning-making motivation allows us to interpret our inner world in the context of an external world.
Meaning-making goes beyond sense-making. While sense-making is a process in which you make sense of experiences retroactively with plausible explanations, meaning-making is a process that attempts to make sense of the now and the future in ways it gives you purpose and a desirable existential context. Meaning-making cultivates hope and a life-trajectory you can look forward to. An existential crisis may be due to a lack of meaning and purpose. Adopting a spiritual framework or becoming a start-up entrepreneur to change the world is a meaning-making process. In fact, having a sense of purpose is one of the biggest predictors of happiness and satisfaction.
In a study on suicide survivors, researchers describe that the survivor goes through 3 processes: A sense-making process to justify the act, a memory-building process to create a narrative about the act (personal or public), and a meaning-making process to reconnect with the world meaningfully. In their study, the researchers found 4 outcomes of their meaning-making process: Some survivors gave life to their new existence by committing to suicide prevention and related causes; some found a new awareness for their lives; some failed to find existential meaning; some told themselves that the suicide was just an accident.
The sense-making process
Sally Maitlis and Marlys K Christianson define sense-making in a more nuanced way. Sense-making is “a process, prompted by violated expectations, that involves attending to and bracketing cues in the environment, creating intersubjective meaning through cycles of interpretation and action, and thereby enacting a more ordered environment from which further cues can be drawn.“
What does that mean? First, sense-making usually occurs in ambiguous and confusing situations, so we aren’t prepared to make sense. Second, bracketing means identifying a structure to information so you can label it to overcome ambiguity. Third, it is social; so people usually make sense in the context of conversation and feedback from behavior. Fourth, we conceptualize a whole experience by giving it significance, identifying patterns, and highlighting the important information.
Key features of sense-making
- Identity and identification: Sense-making takes place from your point of view, with your experiences. That’s one part of identity. It also involves labeling and identifying concepts, ideas, thoughts, actions, etc. Having words to identify and understand is the first step in making sense. You may have noticed a lot of people are happy to just know the word for a phenomenon even though they don’t understand its science or history.
- Retrospection: Sense-making is necessarily about an action that has occurred and you are trying to justify it. On the other hand, meaning-making extends to your present as well as your future.
- Enacting: People build a narrative about their experiences and words help them make sense and form memories.
- Social elements: Most sense-making involves people or interactions with them but meaning-making can be completely isolated and take place within your psyche independently. In sense-making stories and justifications that meet social standards are often preserved.
- Plausibility vs. accuracy: Sense-making, by definition, is about justifying or explaining an action retrospectively, so there is a tendency to think about what a believable and plausible story is. These can be seen in dialogs like “I’m not sure why I like you, but it must be because you are kind and attractive.”
- Continuous evaluation: Sense-making is an ongoing process that includes cues and additional information from the environment. People observe their thoughts and behavior and get feedback from the world to convert chaos into order until they are satisfied.
- Extracting cues: People select and highlight relevant information to assess events. There is a feedback loop between explanations and the supporting evidence (confirmation bias) and they build on each other till something makes “perfect sense.”
This is a simplified version, unlike the one proposed by more recent researchers who use conceptualized sense-making in the context of organizations.
There are more concepts related to sense-making and they are used in manipulating how sense is made. A lot of judgments are formed based on sense-making processes. Let’s go through those.
Sense-breaking: All actions, thoughts, perspective, and evidence that break the explanation or meaning of something. This often happens in therapy, where a person learns to reconcile some traumatic event in a new light. Breaking thinking patterns to build new thinking patterns involves sense-breaking.
Sense-exchanging: People can discuss different interpretations or justifications to come up with more sensible explanations.
Sense-giving: We can help others make sense of something even when they can’t find meaning in it. We can give sense to help others or work toward our self-interest. We can selectively give information or withhold information that affects how others make-sense. For example, we can use this to paint a less negative image ourselves when we have lost respect in someone else’s eyes.
Sense-hiding: Sense-hiding is all about promoting a certain narrative, identity, or explanation by with-holding other plausible explanations.
Sense-specification: We can guide sense-making by drawing boundaries or over-arching tendencies that could involve morality, religion, or other significant themes. For example, “he is a musician, so maybe his late-night routine must be because creative people like to work at night.”
Sense-demanding: Some sense-making is quick and intuitive but sometimes, it is a long-drawn-out process so there is a high demand for effort. For example, forensic sense-making or therapy are high-effort sense-making activities but casual explanations in day-to-day behavior can be low-effort, such as figuring out mistakes in cooking.
Applications of sense-making and meaning-making
Sense-making in learning
When we acquire new information, our instinct is to make sense of it. Sense-making, along with fun and engagement, is at the heart of learning and researchers have found that helping students make sense of their learning is beneficial for them. Sense-making makes knowledge relevant, useful, and practical.
- Music: One could ask – how can musicians work together with near-perfect harmony and chemistry while many businesses and organizations fail to do so? Researchers believe that musicians, because of the nature of musical practice and music construction, foster stronger sense-making at 2 levels: The individual and collective interaction as well as the implicit and explicit knowledge of music. This leads to better collaboration than the collaboration seen in other organizations like start-ups where sense-making itself is ambiguous.
- Culture: How important are contexts for learning? From a sense-making perspective, researchers argue that cultural elements like all sorts of collectively known symbols (memes, songs, movies, pop-culture references, trends, historical facts, icons, etc.) can help students make sense of their learning. This, eventually, improves the quality of learning.
- Mathematics: Researchers consider sense-making an intellectual resource in scientific understanding. For mathematical learning, sense-making via stories can be helpful for children. A core problem with mathematics is that most people think of it as an abstract thing, alienated from the real world. However, mathematical problem solving can improve and become intuitive if it is applied to real-world contexts because informal thinking (shopping, games) can ground the formal, abstract math. Combining the two (abstract & real-world math) helps to make sense of mathematics and improve conceptual understanding.
Sense-making in curiosity, boredom, and flow
A sense-making perspective ties 3 independent mental states together – curiosity, boredom, and flow. Curiosity is the self-motivated drive to seek more information. People get curious to extend their knowledge and feel the “reward” of knowledge. However, a big part of it is to make sense of already existing knowledge or fill knowledge gaps for better understanding. Boredom, on the other hand, is the absence of sense-making in the present moment. Boredom comes from a comparison of the current lack of meaning or sense to a known baseline of meaning and sense that non-boring moments offer. The psychological “flow state” is the opposite of both boredom and curiosity. Flow is an intense state of concentration and involvement with some activity with the highest levels of sense and meaning. However, unlike in curiosity, there is no concern about making sense of one’s gaps in knowledge. And unlike in boredom, there is no upward comparison to a higher state of meaning and sense.
Sense-making is our ability and motivation to retrospectively understand our experiences, thoughts, and actions. Meaning-making is our ability and motivation to give a desirable context to our experiences which fosters hope and an existential purpose.
P.S. Links to books in this article are Amazon affiliate links. That means if you purchase it from India, I receive a small commission from Amazon.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Each article is frequently updated with new research findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.