Affirming Your Values: Studies Cited In Issue 24 Of The Brilliant Report

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In issue 24 of the Brilliant Report, I write about the power of values affirmation to reduce stress, strengthen willpower, increase openness, improve accuracy, and close achievement gaps. Here are links to and abstracts of the studies I cite:

“Affirmation of Personal Values Buffers Neuroendocrine and Psychological Stress Responses”
J. David Creswell et al.
Psychological Science, 2005
Stress is implicated in the development and progression of a broad array of mental and physical health disorders. Theory and research on the self suggest that self-affirming activities may buffer these adverse effects. This study experimentally investigated whether affirmations of personal values attenuate physiological and psychological stress responses. Eighty-five participants completed either a value-affirmation task or a control task prior to participating in a laboratory stress challenge. Participants who affirmed their values had significantly lower cortisol responses to stress, compared with control participants. Dispositional self-resources (e.g., trait self-esteem and optimism) moderated the relation between value affirmation and psychological stress responses, such that participants who had high self-resources and had affirmed personal values reported the least stress. These findings suggest that reflecting on personal values can keep neuroendocrine and psychological responses to stress at low levels. Implications for research on the self, stress processes, health, and interventions are discussed.

“Self-Affirmation and Self-Control: Affirming Core Values Counteracts Ego Depletion”
Brandon J. Schmeichel and Kathleen Vohs
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009
Research has established that acts of self-control deplete a resource required for subsequent self-control tasks. The present investigation revealed that a psychological intervention—self-affirmation—facilitates self-control when the resource has been depleted. Experiments 1 and 2 found beneficial effects of self-affirmation on self-control in a depleted state. Experiments 3 and 4 suggested that self-affirmation improves self-control by promoting higher levels (vs. lower levels) of mental construal. Self-affirmation therefore holds promise as a mental strategy that reduces the likelihood of self-control failure.

“An Affirmed Self and An Open Mind: Self-Affirmation and Sensitivity to Argument Strength”
Joshua Correll, Steven J. Spencer, and Mark P. Zanna
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004
Self-affirmation seems to enable an individual to objectively evaluate information that would otherwise evoke a defensive reaction. If this objectivity reflects freedom from self-evaluative concerns, affirmation should sensitize people to central cues of a persuasive message, like argument strength. If affirmation simply induces agreeableness or trivializes the issue, affirmed participants should not particularly heed argument strength. Affirmed and non-affirmed participants rated the persuasiveness of pro- and counterattitudinal arguments that varied in strength. Among participants who rated their attitudes as personally important, self-affirmation decreased bias and increased sensitivity to argument strength, as predicted by self-affirmation theory.

“Preserving Integrity in the Face of Performance Threat: Self-Affirmation Enhances Neurophysiological Responsiveness to Errors”
Lisa Legault, Timour Al-Khindi, and Michael Inzlicht
Psychological Science, 2012
Self-affirmation produces large effects: Even a simple reminder of one’s core values reduces defensiveness against threatening information. But how, exactly, does self-affirmation work? We explored this question by examining the impact of self-affirmation on neurophysiological responses to threatening events. We hypothesized that because self-affirmation increases openness to threat and enhances approachability of unfavorable feedback, it should augment attention and emotional receptivity to performance errors. We further hypothesized that this augmentation could be assessed directly, at the level of the brain. We measured self-affirmed and nonaffirmed participants’ electrophysiological responses to making errors on a task. As we anticipated, self-affirmation elicited greater error responsiveness than did nonaffirmation, as indexed by the error-related negativity, a neural signal of error monitoring. Self-affirmed participants also performed better on the task than did nonaffirmed participants. We offer novel brain evidence that self-affirmation increases openness to threat and discuss the role of error detection in the link between self-affirmation and performance.

“Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention”
Geoffrey L. Cohen et al.
Science, 2006
Two randomized field experiments tested a social-psychological intervention designed to improve minority student performance and increase our understanding of how psychological threat mediates performance in chronically evaluative real-world environments. We expected that the risk of confirming a negative stereotype aimed at one’s group could undermine academic performance in minority students by elevating their level of psychological threat. We tested whether such psychological threat could be lessened by having students reaffirm their sense of personal adequacy or “self-integrity.” The intervention, a brief in-class writing assignment, significantly improved the grades of African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40%. These results suggest that the racial achievement gap, a major social concern in the United States, could be ameliorated by the use of timely and targeted social-psychological interventions.

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4 Responses to “Affirming Your Values: Studies Cited In Issue 24 Of The Brilliant Report”

  1. teachermrw says:

    I agree that maintaining a healthy self-concept is instrumental for women an people of color, given stereotype threat. However, society also needs to change. That would greatly help the perpetuation of racism and sexism. So, no matter how strong the self-concept of a person of color or a woman may be, societal forces are difficult to overcome.

  2. SH says:

    Affirming the self definitely sounds like a useful strategy, but I’m a bit sceptical about whether it’s going to work when we explicitly affirm our values. It seems to me that most studies have implicitly affirmed their participants (i.e., participants did not know that the experimenter was getting them to affirm their values). In fact, a few studies have even shown that when people are told explicitly that they are affirming their values and that it is supposed to have a lot of benefits, self-affirmation effects reduced. So can affirming our values really work? Or perhaps it may even lead to over-confidence?

  3. anniempaul says:

    That’s a very smart point, SH, and it’s one that a recent study has addressed directly:

    Silverman, Arielle; Logel, Christine; Cohen, Geoffrey L.
    “Self-affirmation as a deliberate coping strategy: The moderating role of choice.”
    Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013
    Self-affirmation interventions, in which people write about personal values, show promise as a technique to help people cope with psychological threat. However, recent research shows that awareness of self-affirmation effects undermines them. We hypothesized that awareness attenuates self-affirmation effects only when completion of the affirmation is externally imposed, rather than personally chosen. In two experiments, self-affirmation effects reemerged when “affirmation-aware” participants were given a choice about either whether to affirm or not (Study 1) or simply which value to write about (Study 2). These results suggest that people can learn to actively apply self-affirmation as a tool for coping with everyday threats.

    So if we give people a choice to affirm or not, people can use this exercise as a conscious and deliberate coping strategy.

    Thanks for your input!—Annie

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