Bad News? Try Affirming Important Values

Self-affirmations and reacting to bad news.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Life eh? It is chock-full of good things, yes, but it is also chock-full of bad things. For starters, we are all going to die. Even while alive, our health is just going to deteriorate and with it, many of the things we enjoy will become more difficult, if not impossible. We also all want to feel like our existence matters and that our life has meaning. Yet, we are just one of the billions of people living on a tiny speck in the cosmos in a very limited period of time. 

Less existentially, we all get evaluated by other people all the time. We have performance reviews at work or criticism from family members, or neighbors, or friends, or even random people on the street. That also extends to those we love. They too face that same criticism, and that obviously sucks too — for them and for us. We also are constantly dealing with stress and potentially bad news.  

Connor Danylenko/pexels
Bad News
Source: Connor Danylenko/pexels

Heck, right now, many of us have been facing months of barely being able to leave the house, and for some of us, that prospect looms large again. Even simple trips to the grocery store are now a giant ball of stress. After waiting in a long line typically reserved for thrilling events as opposed to buying milk and bread, you get inside to face a mix of people that either (a) want to absolutely kill you if you get close to them, which is sometimes impossible to avoid, or (b) think that they can do whatever they want and violate the rules. Either way, you are going to be viewed as a walking potential source of virus (and death) while navigating a very new set of high-stakes rules, where arrows and stickers on the floor guide your every move.

My clearly large issues with grocery shopping aside, research shows that one way to effectively deal with negative information is to affirm important values. But research shows that this is most effective when done before dealing with negative information than when trying to "recover" from the negative information. In a sense, it is better to wear a shield going into battle than try to patch up a wound.

Self-affirmation theory was first published by Claude Steele in 1988 while he was a psychology professor at the University of Washington. The theory starts with the premise that people strive for "self-integrity," which is basically the idea that as individuals we think that we are good, competent, moral people. When encountering a "psychological threat" (or anticipating one), whether it be bad news about our health, feedback about our performance, or having to complete a stressful task, we care more about protecting the self-image than the actual threat itself. As such, if we can still maintain our self-integrity, then the negative information can be coped with in a more effective way. 

Most of the research testing this theory has participants choose either a value that is very important to them or something that is not from a long list of possibilities. They then write about what they have chosen. Studies consistently show, with very rare exceptions, that this helps people cope effectively with a wide range of psychological threats. It has been shown to improve school performance among minorities, improve healthy behaviour following negative health information, increase compromise among political partisans, and even reduce aggressiveness when thinking about death. In my own (unpublished) work, I have found that it increases intentions to read professor essay feedback among people who typically avoid the feedback and negative consequences (rating other people more negatively, to be more specific) following negative feedback on appearance.

There is an important caveat or two to this, however. When the affirmation takes place impacts its effectiveness. It is better to affirm these important self-aspects before experiencing the bad news than after. In other words, if you were preparing to read negative information about your health or your performance, it would be better to affirm values before reading it than after.

The domain of the value relative to the threat matters as well. That is, if you affirm a value on the same topic as the negative info, it won't be as effective. If you were to get negative feedback on your job, thinking about how awesome you are at the job beforehand might not help, but thinking about how you are a good friend would. The idea is to shift your focus and shore up your self-value in that area, which makes the threat to the other area manageable. You won't be as wounded (you are important and valued for other reasons, so chin up), and you will have potentially identified a reason to face the bad news and continue the good fight.

Life kind of sucks a lot of the time. Bad things happen. Keeping an eye on your values and what truly matters to you can help diffuse the negative impact. It helps if this is done before the situation, rather than after. Best to shield yourself than to patch up a wound.