Self-Affirmations Work by Broadening Perspective on the Self
By Clayton Critcher
People are remarkably resilient. They bounce back from double faulting to lose a tennis match, lead relatively happy lives despite failing to pass the first round of qualification for Jeopardy, and persist in submitting papers for publication even after being told by a snarky reviewer that it might be time to read an intro social psychology textbook. Such evidence can be found not only from my own life, but also from a large empirical literature that attests to people’s talent at maintaining a sense of adequacy, worth, and esteem.
A central theme in research on the self is that people can maintain positive self-views not merely by attacking or rationalizing away threats at their source, but by bolstering the self indirectly. We need not deal directly with every threat that nags us, as long as we can focus on other sources of self-esteem to make us feel whole. Although we cannot restore physical health by treating symptoms we don’t have, it seems we can maintain psychological equanimity in this way.
For several decades, psychologists have used self-affirmations—simple interventions that ask people to reflect on a valued aspect of their identity—to forestall threat-inspired defensive processes. Self-affirmations’ effects have been demonstrated widely—to reduce defensive closed-mindedness in negotiations, to encourage the healthy appreciation that one needs to change one’s unhealthy habits, and even to address performance-deteriorating stereotype threat. Although these studies, and many more, provide support for the general model by which psychological threats in one domain can be addressed by one’s psychological resources in another domain, the mechanism underlying such treatment has remained elusive.
Intrigued by this problem, David Dunning and I wondered whether part of what had kept this mystery unsolved was a limitation imposed by how we psychologists tend to think about the question “Why does this happen?” A well-established script for paper writing in our field includes a culminating mediation study, one that shows that a treatment affects an outcome because of its effect on some intermediary variable X. Although researchers grumble about this convention for a number of reasons, one problem with it is that it may encourage us to think about psychological mechanisms in a limited way. In particular, it encourages us to focus narrowly on the treatment, asking what it is that the treatment adds that encourages the outcome of interest. With this mindset, it can be easy to miss that interventions may work by subtraction—undoing or merely forestalling a separate process.
With this in mind, we asked not what affirmations do, but what threats do (that affirmations may undo). When encountering real threats in the world (e.g., a menacing animal, a gun), people can adopt tunnel vision, seeing the threat and nothing else. In these contexts, such a strategy is adaptive, shifting one’s attention to what should be prioritized in the moment. As research on rumination can tell us, a similar phenomenon is prompted by psychological threats. But as even the most talented among us can attest, criticism and negative feedback are inescapable, meaning it would be maladaptive to be constantly weighed down by them. Under threat, we tend not to appreciate the totality of the self, but instead have a very constricted view of who we are—seeing only the hungry bear and not the beautiful forest. By this account, affirmations are simply very efficient defocusers that help us to avoid the tunnel vision that threats encourage, leading us to adopt a broader perspective on our self, and thus on the threat. In this sense, affirmations are not magical stain removers; they simply help us to look at our dining room table as a whole instead of at that one small heat mark that no one else seems to notice.
In one study testing these ideas, we set participants up to fail. We gave Ivy League students—no strangers to positive feedback—an extremely difficult test of their intellectual ability, one we had used in past research to inspire defensiveness. Afterward, we measured their positive feelings of self-worth (e.g., “I currently feel confident.”) Control participants’ depressed self-worth was narrowly tethered to their sense of how good they were at tests like the one they had just failed at (ß = .59), and largely uncorrelated with their baseline self-esteem (ß = .17). In contrast, affirmed participants’ elevated feelings of self-worth were a function of their baseline self-esteem (ß = .42) and relatively unrelated to their sense of how good they were at the test (ß = .08). It is as though the two groups of participants were answering questions about different selves—one that was narrowly defined by the just-threatened domain or one that was more broadly defined by their other sources of self-esteem.
In a typical self-affirmation exercise, participants: 1) spend time writing , 2) selectively focus on an important, positive self-aspect at the expense of unimportant ones, and 3) engage with that valued self-aspect by analyzing why it has meaning in their own lives. By our reasoning, none of these features are critical. Instead, all that is important is that participants are broadening their sense of self so as not to have their sense of self dominated by the threat. Thus, in anther study, we designed an exercise that included no writing or analysis, and that asked participants to focus on both important and unimportant self-aspects. Participants filled in a visual representation of their self-concept not merely with a valued identity, but with both a threatened one and an unimportant one as well. By filling in all of these aspects of the self, participants expanded their working self-concept beyond the threat to include additional identities as well—that which we hypothesize is the crucial consequence of self-affirmations. And as expected, this perspective exercise reduced defensiveness as effectively as did a standard self-affirmation exercise.
Attempting to understand why an intervention works is not merely an interesting question in its own right, but is a necessary step in understanding how best to harness the intervention’s power. For example, if affirmations need to expand one’s sense of self in order to effectively offer perspective on a threat, then it follows that affirmations should be more effective when they are not in the same domain as the threat. And indeed, this deduction has been empirically confirmed.
More broadly, our own research adventures with self-affirmation have reminded me to avoid an error that our own introductory social psychology textbooks warned us about. In making an attribution for why an intervention brings about certain effects, it is important not merely to think about the intervention in isolation, but to understand how it operates in light of the other forces and dynamics that define the situation. Perhaps my snarky reviewer was right all along.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 3-18.
Clayton Critcher is an Assistant Professor of Marketing, Cognitive Science, and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. He researches how people come to understand themselves, draw inferences about other people, and navigate as economic, moral, and political beings in a complex world. You can learn more about his past and ongoing work at http://claytoncritcher.squarespace.com.