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The Danger of Self-Affirmation

Self-affirmation isn't a good idea for everyone.

By William B. Swann, Jr.

All people want to think well of themselves. This is, at least, what many psychologists would have us believe. So too would hundreds of practitioners of the self-help movement. Indeed, in the US, a multi-billion dollar personal improvement industry is built on the premise that people have an insatiable hunger for positive self-views. To feed this hunger, all they need do is repeat a few positive affirmations such as "I am lovable and capable." With enough repetitions, the argument goes, people who suffer from low self-esteem will transform themselves into highly self-confident individuals who will discover that the world is their oyster.

Yet this fairy tale account of human nature now looks about as credible as, well, a fairy tale. For example, recent research suggests that the positive affirmations that are the stock in trade for the self-help industry are ineffective for the people who need them most. In fact, when people with low self-esteem recite positive affirmations, they actually feel worse (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009). Similarly, when others happen to evaluate people with negative self-views in a positive way, their initial feelings of exultation quickly vanish as they recognize that the praise rings hollow and inaccurate (Hixon & Swann, 1993) and they takes steps to avoid it (Swann, Hixon, Stein-Seroussi, & Gilbert, 1990). Moreover, when given a choice between interacting with evaluators who recognize their negative qualities versus those who entertain overly positive appraisals of them, people choose the partner who perceives them in a subjectively accurate manner (Swann, Stein-Seroussi, & Giesler, 1992). And if people wind up with spouses who persistently entertain positive evaluations of qualities they believe are negative, they withdraw, either emotionally or through divorce (e.g., Cast & Burke, 2002; Swann, Hixon, & De La Ronde, 1992). More generally, when researchers have compared the strength of the desire for positive evaluations to the strength of the desire for subjectively accurate evaluations, they encountered little support that people abandon concerns about accuracy in favor of positivity (Kwang & Swann, 2009; Shrauger, 1975).

Why are people with negative self-views so reluctant to embrace positive evaluations? The reasons were spelled out over quarter of a century ago by self-verification theory (Swann, 1983; in press; Wikipedia, 2007). The theory begins with the proposition that people want others to see them as they see themselves. For example, just as those who see themselves as good athletes want others to see them as athletic, so too do those who see themselves as poor athletes want others to recognize them as un-athletic.

The desire for self-verification presumably grows out of the fact that our self-views are crucial to our efforts to make sense of the world and guide behavior. Self views stabilize behavior by encouraging people to consistently see the world and behave in a particular way. Such stability makes them predictable to others and, in turn, facilitates smooth social interaction. Eventually, people become so accustomed to having others see them as they see themselves that these self-verifying reactions become reassuring and comforting-even if the self-view in question happens to be negative. By the same token, experiences that disconfirm people's self-views are troubling and anxiety provoking because they suggest that something is amiss with their knowledge of themselves, the world, or both (Wood, Heimpel, Newby-Clark, & Ross, 2005).
Of course, people will sometimes accept subjectively inaccurate evaluations. If the self-view is unimportant or weakly held, or if the relationship is fleeting or inconsequential, people may accept evaluations that they know are inaccurate. When the self-view is firmly held and the relationship is enduring, however, people will do whatever it takes to ensure that the evaluations they receive are self-verifying.
The fact that self-verification strivings trump the desire for positive evaluations when their negative self-views are firmly held does not mean that people with negative self-views are masochistic or have no desire to be loved. To the contrary, even people with very low self-esteem want to be loved. What sets such individuals apart is their ambivalence about praise and acceptance-although positive evaluations initially foster joy and warmth, these feelings are later chilled by incredulity.

It is easy to see how self-verification strivings might be adaptive for the majority of people, because roughly 70% of people have positive self-views (e.g., Diener & Diener, 1995). For these individuals, self-verification strivings bring stability to their lives, rendering their experiences more coherent, orderly, and comprehensible than they would be otherwise. Such coherence and predictability may not only enable people to achieve their relationship goals (e.g., raising children, coordinating careers), it may also be psychologically comforting and anxiety reducing. In fact, when members of work groups offer one another self-verification, the result is greater identification with the group and productivity (Swann, Milton, & Polzer, 2002), especially if the group is relatively diverse (Polzer, Milton, & Swann, 2002; Swann, Polzer, Seyle & Ko, 2003). Higher levels of self-verification in groups has also been linked to the erosion of social stereotypes (Swann, Kwan, Polzer, & Milton, 2003b).

But if people with positive self-views generally benefit from self-verification, for people with negative self-views, the process of self-verification strivings can produce mixed results. It is adaptive for people to seek verification for negative self-views that reflect immutable personal limitations (e.g., short stature). On the other hand, when people strive to verify inappropriately negative self-views-that is, self-views that exaggerate or misrepresent their limitations (e.g., erroneously believing that one is fat or dull witted), they may consign themselves to punishing life situations or needlessly foreclose highly desirable life possibilities. For instance, self-verification strivings may encourage people to remain in relationships with deflating or demeaning partners and flee from partners who think well of them (Swann, 1996). Once ensconced in such relationships, people may be unable to benefit from therapy because returning home to a self-verifying partner may undo the progress that was made in the therapist's office (Swann & Predmore, 1984). And the workplace may offer little solace, for self-verification strivings have been linked to a tendency to tolerate unjust treatment (Wiesenfeld, Swann, Brockner & Bartel, 2007). For those who develop erroneous negative self-views, it is therefore important to work to disrupt the self-verifying cycles in which they are often trapped (Swann, Chang-Schneider & McClarty, 2007).

William B. Swann, Jr., is a Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay was originally written for the Polish pop magazine Charaktery.

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Hixon, J. G., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (1993). When does introspection bear fruit? Self-reflection, self-insight, and interpersonal choices. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 35-43.

Kwang, T. & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2009). Do people embrace praise even when they feel unworthy? A review of critical tests of self-enhancement versus self-verification. Manuscript submitted for publication, University of Texas at Austin.

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Polzer, J. T., Milton, L. P. & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2002). Capitalizing on Diversity: Interpersonal Congruence in Small Work Groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, 296-324.

Self-verification theory

Shrauger, J. S. (1975). Responses to evaluation as a function of initial self-perceptions. Psychological Bulletin, 82, 581-596.

Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 33-66), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Swann, W. B., Jr. (1996). Self-traps: The elusive quest for higher self-esteem. Freeman: New York.

Swann, W.B., Jr., Chang-Schneider, C.S., & McClarty, K.L. (2006). Does what we think of ourselves matter? Self-esteem and self-concept in everyday life.
Swann, W. B. Jr., Kwan, V. S. Y., Polzer, J. T., Milton, L. P. (2003).

Vanquishing stereotypic perceptions via individuation and self-verification: Waning of gender expectations in small groups. Social Cognition, 21, 194-212.

Swann, W.B., Jr., Hixon, J.G., & De La Ronde, C. (1992). Embracing the bitter "truth": Negative self-concepts and marital commitment. Psychological Science, 3, 118-121.
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Swann, W. B., Jr., Milton, L. P., & Polzer, J.T. (2000). Should we create a niche or fall in line? Identity negotiation and small group effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.79, 238-250.

Swann, W. B. Jr., Polzer, J. T., Seyle, C. & Ko, S. (2004). Finding value in diversity: Verification of personal and social self-views in diverse groups. Academy of Management Review, 29, 9-27.

Swann, W. B. Jr., Kwan, V. S. Y., Polzer, J. T., Milton, L. P. (2003a). Vanquishing stereotypic perceptions via individuation and self-verification: Waning of gender expectations in small groups. Social Cognition, 21, 194-212.

Swann, W. B., Jr., & Predmore, S. C. (1985). Intimates as agents of social support: Sources of consolation or despair? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1609-1617.

Swann, W. B., Jr., Stein-Seroussi, A. & Giesler, B. (1992). Why people self-verify. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 392-401.

Wiesenfeld, B. M., Swann, W.B., Jr, Brockner, J. & Bartel, C. (2007). Is More Fairness Always Preferred? Self-Esteem Moderates Reactions to Procedural Justice. Academy of Management Journal, 50, 1235-1253.

Wood, J. V., Heimpel, S. A., Newby-Clark, I., & Ross, M. (2005). Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: Self-esteem differences in the experience and anticipation of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 764-780.

Wood, J. V., Perunovic, E., & Lee, J.W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20, 860 - 866.

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