The power and practice of self-affirmation


Self-integrity and the power of self-affirmation

We’ve all heard of self-affirmation – but what is it, and how does it work? Sometimes, it can can be stressful to receive negative feedback, or we can worry about how well we are performing in a particular task. Acting defensively in response to this can limit our opportunities to learn and grow. Research around self-affirmation suggests that reflecting on other aspects of ourselves can stop us becoming defensive. But why? And how do we actually go about ‘self-affirming’?

The help and hindrance of defensiveness

We all have a sense of who we are, what we stand for and what we value in ourselves. Living in line with these beliefs is important to the extent such behaviour supports self-integrity. When our self-integrity is challenged (perhaps because we do not achieve what we want to or act as we feel we should of) it often makes us act defensively. We can deny what has happened, or re-frame what the event means. This is psychologically healthy in some ways as it can protect us from the dent to our self-esteem that low self-integrity can cause. However, this approach is not very adaptive in other; We can’t learn from our mistakes if we deny they happen. How do we than manage this?

Self-affirmation can be a powerful tool

Self-affirmation theory was first developed by Claude Steele1. Steele argued that we have multiple aspects of the self that we value. If our self-integrity is threatened in one domain, we can use another to support it. Lets think of an example – imagine I was a sport player who valued high performance. Now imagine I did poorly in a game.My self-integrity would be threatened, so I may act defensively and miss the learning points. But – what if I also valued being a fair player, or having a sense of humour about the game? Self-affirmation theory suggests that if we can emphasises those dimensions, the need for defensiveness diminishes (for instance, ‘we did poorly, but we played fair’). Doing this prevents the threat to our self-integrity and thus the need to act defensively.

There is plenty of evidence for self-affirmation theory. For instance, if you allow sports players to talk about what makes their group special (in terms of camaraderie, spirituality, sense of humour etc) they are less likely to attribute losses to things like poor referee judgements2. As a result, they are not responding defensively and can hopefully learn from the experience. Perhaps more strikingly, being encouraged to self-affirm prior to undertaking a stressful maths task (the Triers Social Stress task, if you are interested) led to people experiencing lower levels of psychological(and physiological) stress responses 3. In a similar vien, people given the opportunity to self-affirm have also been shown to be better problem solvers! 4

How does it work?

Short answer – we don’t know yet! Some research has linked the effects of affirmation to positive increases in mood 5 or self esteem 6. The ventral striatum area of the brain has also been implicated in the process 7. However, effects are not consistent, so it is too early to draw conclusions.

Generating your own self-affirmation

In laboratory studies, people who are being tested for self-affirmation effects usually list a number of values which are important to them, choose the most important and then spend 10 minutes writing about it (and how they embody it). This is, needless to say, not particularly practical in everyday situations! However, these studies are try to induce self-affirmation as a state amongst people who may well not actively reflect on these sort of things often. You can get ahead of the game by trying to make these self-concepts more accessible during times of stress before you need them. If you identify values which are important to you, and then which aspects of self / your behaviour links to them (i.e. you routinely engage in self-affirmation), you can make them easier to bring to mind when things are harder. You can achieve this by making just two or three minutes a day to self-reflect. Of course, this is a slow burn – don’t expect to see overnight results! If you need a quicker fix – better get the pen and paper out, and get cracking on that essay…

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  1. Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. Advances in experimental social psychology, 21, 261-302. 
  2. Sherman, D. K., Kinias, Z., Major, B., Kim, H. S., & Prenovost, M. (2007). The group as a resource: Reducing biased attributions for group success and failure via group affirmation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(8), 1100-1112. 
  3. Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851. 
  4. Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PLoS One, 8(5), e62593. 
  5. Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Lynch, M. (1993). Self-image resilience and dissonance: the role of affirmational resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 885. 
  6. Fein, S., & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 31. 
  7. Dutcher, J. M., Creswell, J. D., Pacilio, L. E., Harris, P. R., Klein, W. M., Levine, J. M., … & Eisenberger, N. I. (2016). Self-affirmation activates the ventral striatum: a possible reward-related mechanism for self-affirmation. Psychological Science, 27(4), 455-466. 

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