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Self-affirmation: A Strategy to Reduce Self-control Failure

Self-affirm core values to decrease self-control failure

The research evidence across four new studies reveals the importance of affirming one's sense of self to bolster our depleted self-control. I think this research underscores the deeply existential issue of self-affirmation and "courage" in relation to the self-regulation failure we know as procrastination.

Brandon J. Schmeichel (Texas A&M University) and Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota) report on a series of interesting studies in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This is a long article, so my intention is only to provide a very brief overview of the rationale and main findings of their research. If you're interested in this article, you can read it here.

These psychologists have both studied with Roy Baumeister, a name familiar to readers of this blog, and anyone else interested in social psychology. Schmeichel and Vohs have extended the self-regulation depletion (willpower-is-like-a-muscle) paradigm developed by Baumeister and his students with an explicit focus on factors that can reduce the likelihood of self-control failure. Their focus was on self-affirmation as an intervention strategy.

Self-affirmation refers to behavioral or cognitive events that sustain, support and strengthen the perceived integrity of the self (Steele, 1988, cited in Schmeichel & Vohs, 2009). Examples of self-affirming events include:

  • receiving positive feedback from others
  • reflecting upon positive aspects of oneself

Another, and perhaps the most powerful, mode of self-affirmation is expressing one's core values. In fact, this is what Schmeichel and Vohs used in their study.

The rationale behind the use of self-affirmation as a strategy to enhance self-control is that the act of self-affirmation allows people to respond in a manner that counters their automatic response tendency. In other words, self-affirmation counters habits of action, and this is the essence of self-control - our action is consciously volitional as opposed to habitual.

They conducted 4 studies, the details of which are beyond a single blog posting. Suffice it to say that the basic experimental design was to deplete the participants' self-regulatory strength (also known as ego depletion) and then to experimentally manipulate potential recovery through the use of self-affirmation. The various experiments involved different volitional tasks, for example, pain tolerance (Experiment 1), persistence at a
difficult task (Experiment 2), and delay of gratification (Experiment 4). You can read more about this experimental design in my previous blog, Willpower is like a muscle.

Their results
Across all of the studies, the ego depletion effects were completely eliminated among participants who expressed their core life values during the time between the two experimental tasks that required self-regulatory strength. Their results also suggested that self-affirmation counteracts ego depletion by promoting high levels of mental construal. In other words, the process of self-affirmation changes the way we think about our tasks or goals, so that we think about our tasks in more abstract/value-related ways, as opposed to concrete, lower-level actions.

As the authors summarize their findings . . .
"Previous research established that self-affirmation acts as a powerful salve for negative feedback and other threats to the self, such that self-affirmed individuals forego defensive, self-protective responses to threat in favor of more open and evenhanded responses. The current findings extended the benefits of self-affirmation to essential volitional domains including pain tolerance, task persistence, and delay of gratification. Combined with previous evidence that self-affirmation helps to counteract threats to self-regard, the current findings indicate that self-affirmation both fortifies the self-concept and boosts the self's regulatory function" (emphasis added).

So why does self-affirmation work?
In their discussion of self-affirmation, Schmeichel and Vohs draw on Terror Management theory. I have written about this previously as the "new science of the soul" and XXP - Experimental Existential Psychology. This theory proposes that humans construct positive views of self because these views reduce the anxiety associated with awareness of death. In spite of the awareness of the inevitability of death, we are able to self-affirm our meaning, our sense of self.

"In spite of" the awareness of non-being
What this link made by Schmeichel and Vohs reveals is that self-affirmation is a deeply existential issue. In fact, for me, their paper underscores how self-control failure is an existential issue, one that is best addressed by notions of inauthentic existence and a lack of a courage to be.

The courage to be, as I have written previously, was the title of one of the most influential books of the 20th century written by the theologian Paul Tillich. The notion of self-affirmation is a key concept in his writing. For example, he writes, "Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of nonbeing upon itself by affirming itself either as part of an embracing whole or in its individual selfhood" (Tillich, 1952; p. 155). and "The self whose self-affirmation is virtue and courage is the self which surpasses itself" (pp. 18-19). Of course, this self-affirmation is a form of transendence that enables one to look past the immediate situation (e.g., depleted, not feeling like it) to find the strength to self-regulate.

What can we take away from this in terms of procrastination?
Given that procrastination is a quintessential form of self-regulation failure, a key strategy to bolster self-regulatory strength to act on our intentions is to focus on our core values. This self-affirmation, as Schmeichel and Vohs have demonstrated, can fortify the self-concept and boost self-regulatory function. Of course, it will also simply make life more worth living. It will be your life, one deeply rooted in your sense of self. As Tillich writes, "Joy accompanies the self-affirmation of our essential being . . . Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one's own true being" (p. 14).

Schmeichel, Brandon J.; Vohs, Kathleen (2009). Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core values counteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 96(4), 770-782. Read this paper here and find similar papers here.

Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261-302). New York: Academic Press.

Tillich, P (1952). The Courage To Be. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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