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Do Self-Affirmations Work? A Revisit

Self-affirmations may or may not help change behavior and self-esteem

Self-affirmations were first popularized by French psychologist Emile Coué back in the 1920s and are still a staple of self help gurus and psychologists and personal coaches. But do they work?

While positive affirmations are used to bring change on many fronts, from money making, to weight loss, to public speaking, these positive self-statements, if repeated over time, are presumed to convince the individual that the statements are true and by extension boost the individual’s self-esteem.

Some proponents of affirmations claim that, when practiced deliberately and regularly, they reinforce a chemical pathway in the brain, making the connection between two neurons stronger, and therefore more likely to conduct the same message again.

What does recent research say?

Published in PLOS ONE, new research from Carnegie Mellon University provides the first evidence that self-affirmation can protect against the damaging effects of stress on problem-solving performance. Understanding that self-affirmation -- the process of identifying and focusing on one's most important values -- boosts stressed individuals' problem-solving abilities will help guide future research and the development of educational interventions.

"An emerging set of published studies suggest that a brief self-affirmation activity at the beginning of a school term can boost academic grade-point averages in underperforming kids at the end of the semester. This new work suggests a mechanism for these studies, showing self-affirmation effects on actual problem-solving performance under pressure," said J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The results showed that participants who were under high levels of chronic stress during the past month had impaired problem-solving performance. In fact, they solved about 50 percent fewer problems in the task. But notably, this effect was qualified by whether participants had an opportunity to first complete the self-affirmation activity. Specifically, a brief self-affirmation was effective in eliminating the deleterious effects of chronic stress on problem-solving performance, such that chronically stressed self-affirmed participants performed under pressure at the same level as participants with low chronic stress levels.

"People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them," Creswell said. "It's an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high pressure performance situation."

New research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explores the neurophysiological reactions that could explain how self-affirmation helps us deal with threats to our self-integrity.

"Although we know that self-affirmation reduces threat and improves performance, we know very little about why this happens. And we know almost nothing about the neural correlates of this effect," says lead researcher Lisa Legault of Clarkson University.

Legault and her colleagues Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto Scarborough and Timour Al-Khindi of Johns Hopkins University posed several hypotheses. They theorized that because self-affirmation has been shown to make us more open to threats and unfavorable feedback, it should also make us more attentive and emotionally receptive to the errors that we make.

The researchers further hypothesized that these effects on attention and emotion could be measured directly in the form of a well-known brain response called error-related negativity, or ERN. The ERN is a pronounced wave of electrical activity in the brain that occurs within 100 ms of making an error on a task.

"These findings are important because they suggest one of the first ways in which the brain mediates the effects of self-affirmation," says Legault.

While these findings help to demystify the mechanisms that underlie self-affirmation, they may also have important practical implications. According to Legault, "Practitioners who are interested in using self-affirmation as an intervention tactic in academic and social programming might be interested to know that the strategy produces measurable neurophysiological effects."

Legault says that, ultimately, this research helps to show that "error-related distress, and our awareness thereof, can actually be a good thing."

David K. Sherman of the University of California and Geoffrey L. Cohen at Yale University argue that the tenents of self-affirmation theory are:

  • People are motivated to protect the perceived integrity and worth of self.
  • Motivations to protect self-integrity can result in defensive responses.
  • The self-system is flexible.
  • People can be affirmed by engaging in activities that remind them of “who they 
are” (and doing so reduces the implications for self-integrity of threatening events).

Much research suggests that people have a “psychological immune system” that initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived Sherman and Cohen contend. Psychological adaptations to threats include the various cognitive strategies and even distortions whereby people come to construe a situation in a manner that renders it less threatening to personal worth and well-being. Many of these psychological adaptations can be thought of as defensive in nature, insofar as they alter the meaning of the event in a way that shields people from the conclusion that their beliefs or actions were misguided.

We see defensive responses as adaptations aimed at ameliorating threats to self- integrity the authors argue. The vast research on defensive biases testifies to their robustness and to the frequency with which people use them. Although these defensive responses are adaptive in the sense of protecting or enhancing an individual’s sense of self-integrity, they can be maladaptive to the extent they forestall learning from important, though threatening, experiences and information. Moreover, Sherman and Cohen say, peoples’ efforts to protect self-integrity may threaten the integrity of their relationships with others . Yet, these normal adaptations can be “turned off” through an altogether different psychological adaptation to threat, an alternative adaptation that does not hinge on distorting the threatening event to render it less significant. One way that these defensive adaptations can be reduced, or even eliminated, is through the process of self-affirmation.

There are other researchers who question the validity and utility of self-affirmations. Canadian researcher, Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded "repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most."

The researchers asked people with and low self-esteem to say "I am a lovable person." They then measured the participants' moods and their feelings about themselves. The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation--but only slightly. The psychologists then asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as "I accept myself completely" can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals in individuals with low self-esteem. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, the researchers argue, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable, for example, find that saying that when they don’t really believe it, strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.

These findings were supported by previous research published in 1994 in the Journal of Social Psychology, showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.

Dr. Wood goes even further. In her Psychology Today blog, she says that most self-help books advocating positive affirmations may be based on good intentions or personal experience, but they are rarely based on even one iota of scientific evidence. She cites psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness as an exception.

Does that mean positive affirmations are of absolutely no value? Not according to Dr. Wood and her co-researchers. They say that positive affirmations can help when they are part of a broader program of intervention. That intervention can take place in a number of forms such as cognitive psychotherapy or working with a coach who has expertise in the behavioral sciences. What kind of intervention is best to use to make positive affirmations most effective?

That's where we encounter even more controversy.

Traditional cognitive psychotherapy may not be the best intervention according to Dr. Steven Hayes, a renowned psychotherapist, and author of Getting Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Hayes has been setting the world of psychotherapy on its ear by advocating a totally different approach.

In an article in Time magazine, John Cloud describes Hayes' work. Hayes and researchers Marsha Linehan and Robert Kohlenberg at the University of Washington, and Zindel Segal at the University of Toronto, what we could call "Third Wave Psychologists" are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context--to modify the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can't control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of "cognitive errors" and "distorted interpretation," Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them--imagine the thoughts being a leaf or canoe floating down the stream.

These Third Wave Psychologists would argue that trying to correct negative thoughts can paradoxically actually intensify them. As NLP trained coaches would say, telling someone to "not think about a blue tree," actually focuses their mind on a blue tree. The Third Wave Psychologists methodology is called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which says that we should acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout our life and instead of challenging or fighting with them, we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values in life. Hayes would argue that once we are willing to feel our negative emotions, we'll find it easier to commit ourselves to what we want in life.

This approach may come as a surprise to many, because the traditional cognitive model permeates our culture and the media as reflected in the Dr. Phil show. The essence of the conflict between traditional cognitive psychologists and psychotherapists is to engage in a process of analyzing your way out your problems, or the Third Wave approach which says, accept that you have negative beliefs, thinking and problems and focus on what you want. Third Wave Psychologists and coaches acknowledge that we have pain, but rather than trying to push it away, they say trying to push it away or deny it just gives it more energy and strength.

Third Wave Psychologists and coaches focus on acceptance and commitment which comes with a variety of strategies to help people including such things as writing your epitaph (what's going to be your legacy), clarifying your values and committing your behavior to them.

It's interesting that that The Third Wave Psychologists approach comes along at a time when more and more people are looking for answer outside of the traditional medical model (which psychiatry and traditional psychotherapy represent). Just look at a 2002 study in Prevention and Treatment, which found that 80% people tested who took the six most popular antidepressants of the 1990's got the same results when they took a sugar pill placebo.

The Third Wave Psychologists approaches are very consistent with much of the training and approach that many life coaches receive, inclusive of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and many spiritual approaches to behavioral changes reflected in ancient Buddhist teachings and the more modern version exemplified by Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now). The focus of those approaches reinforces the concepts of acceptance of negative emotions and thoughts, and rather than giving them energy and fighting with them, focus on mindfulness, and a commitment to an alignment of values and behavior.

So what can we learn from all this? Two things--first, just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves, can do harm to people with low self-esteem, and provide only little benefit for those with high-esteem, if those affirmations are not part of a comprehensive program of self-growth, preferably with a knowledgeable professional; and second, the traditional cognitive psychotherapeutic approach of trying to change people's negative thinking through logical processes may actually be counterproductive, compared to an approach that has people accept their thoughts, not resist them and give more energy to them by thinking about them, but rather engage in positive behaviors.

References:

J. David Creswell, Janine M. Dutcher, William M. P. Klein, Peter R. Harris, John M. Levine. Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (5): e62593

Jaremka, L.M.. Reducing defensive distancing: Self-affirmation and risk regulation in response to relationship threats. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2011;47:264-268.

Correll, J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2004). An affirmed self and an open mind: Self-affirmation and sensitivity to argument strength. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 350-356.

Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x

 

L. Legault, T. Al-Khindi, M. Inzlicht. “Preserving Integrity in the Face of Performance Threat: Self-Affirmation Enhances Neurophysiological Responsiveness to Errors.” Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612448483

 

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). “The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory.” In M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183-242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

 

 

 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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