When it comes to behavior change, social psychology rocks. Using basic principles discovered in the lab, researchers are designing all sorts of effective real-world interventions. Two new examples were published recently, one in which researchers succeeded in making people more open to discovering their medical risk factors, and another in which they helped people lose weight.
Both of these studies are examples of what I call "story-editing," in which people are induced to revise the way they think about themselves in the social world. Changing people's self-stories can have cascading, long-term effects, by bumping them out of a self-defeating cycle of thinking into a more positive, self-enhancing cycle. The story-editing approach has had remarkable success, helping to reduce child abuse, close the achievement gap in middle schools, reduce racial prejudice, and increase personal happiness.
The two new examples used a form of story editing called self-affirmation, whereby people are asked to think about an area of their lives that they value. Typically, people are given a list of topics, such as religion, athletics, musical ability, and relationships with other people, and asked to pick the one that is most important to them. Then, they are asked to write about a time when that area of their life was particularly important and why. That's all there is to it—a brief writing exercise that takes just a few minutes.
As mundane as this writing exercise sounds, completing it can have surprisingly powerful effects. It works by helping people deal with threats in their lives, such as the possibility that they have a serious physical ailment or are failing to reach an important goal (e.g., losing weight). People often deal with such threats by finding some way of deflecting them psychologically. "I'm sure I'm fine," we think, "no need to go to the doctor." Or, "So what if my jeans don't fit, I haven't gained THAT much weight." We rationalize in order to make ourselves feel better.
The self-affirmation exercise helps people deal with threats in a more effective way, by accepting them as real and taking steps to deal with them directly. Consider a recent study by Jennifer Howell and James Shepperd. Participants learned about a new disease that can have serious health consequences, and then were given an opportunity to find out what their lifetime risk of getting the disease was. Less than half of the participants (45%) chose to do so, adopting an avoidance strategy. After all, by avoiding the information, they could pretend that everything was just fine. But if people first completed the self-affirmation writing exercise, they were much more open to getting the feedback: 84% of them chose to find out what their lifetime risk of getting the disease was. Several other studies have found that self-affirmation promotes healthy behaviors.
Or, consider this example: In a study by Christine Logel and Geoffrey Cohen, college women were randomly assigned to do the self-affirmation exercise or to a control group that did not. All the women were weighed, sent home, and asked to return two-and-a-half months later. At the second session the women were weighed again, to see whether they had lost or gained weight since the first session. As it happened, the women in the control condition had gained an average of 2.8 pounds, whereas the women in the self-affirmation condition had lost an average of 3.4 pounds.
All of the women had expressed dissatisfaction with their weight, suggesting that weight gain was an area of personal threat to them. Remarkably, lowering the heat on that threat just a little, by having women write about other aspects of their lives that were important to them, made them more successful in meeting their weight loss goals.
Self-affirmation exercises probably sound magical, or maybe even a little silly, like Al Franken's character Stuart Smalley, who looks in the mirror and says to himself, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" And it's true that the exact way in which they work is not entirely clear (lots of researchers are attempting to answer this question). But the fact is that self-affirmation exercises have been proven to be effective in a number of domains. Whatever the exact mechanisms, they help people deal more effectively with challenges in their lives.