The Case for Self-Affirmation Is Getting Stronger and Stronger


As Melissa explained earlier this month, indulging in a bit of self-affirmation before apologizing to someone appears to make the apology come across as better and more sincere. Now a new meta-analysis summarized in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s Character & Context blog by one of its authors, Tracy Epton of the University of Manchester, adds some weight to the notion that self-affirmation can help with all sorts of things we’d like to do well but frequently fall short at.

Self-affirmation is, in short, any “act that demonstrates one’s adequacy” (PDF). A commonly performed and studied version of it is to simply reflect on something that’s important to you, whether your family, your faith, or anything else. For their study, Epton and her colleagues examined 41 published and unpublished studies involving self-affirmation and positive health behaviors (a meta-analysis is a type of study in which instead of doing original research, you basically add up the results of a bunch of studies within a single area to suss out any notable findings or trends — the idea being that aggregating a lot of studies can correct for the statistical noise and experimental errors inherent to single ones).

The results look promising for self-affirmation. “We found that self-affirmation does indeed improve message acceptance, intentions, and behavior,” Epton writes. Why might that be? Epton, her colleagues, and a bunch of other researchers think that it basically comes down to our need to see ourselves in a certain light:

Certain types of information threaten self-integrity; for example information that suggests that our lifestyle choices are bad for our health would indicate that we were not adaptively adequate (after all, why would someone intentionally continue to do something that is harmful to their health). In these circumstances we act defensively to avoid accepting the health information and the fact that we might be behaving irrationally and putting our health at risk. Although defensive responses are good for maintaining self-integrity; choosing not to change our risky health behavior is detrimental to long-term health.

In other words, from a psychological standpoint, it’s easier to say, “Eh, I can get away with eating pizza four times a week” (to take a hypothetical example with no connection to my own life, of course) — that is, to downplay the threat your grease-bomb addiction poses to your health — than it is to grapple with the fact that you really are doing damage to your health with your eating habits.

Self-affirmation, though, serves as something of an inoculation against this sort of thinking. It bolsters our sense of self to the point that we’re more likely to accept the acknowledgement that we’re doing something bad for our health — and therefore more likely to change our behavior.

That, claims Epton, can help explain which areas do and don’t appear to be most positively affected by self-affirmation:

We found that self-affirmation was more effective in changing behavior when the health risk was proximal. As self-affirmation works by reducing defensive responding when people feel threatened, it could be that self-affirmation is most effective on more proximal health risks as they are perceived as more threatening (e.g., they are perceived as more vivid and relevant) than more distal risks.

This seems like a really promising area for further research. And I’m going to keep an eye on it, because journalism and social science are really, really important fields to me that help reflect who I am as a unique individual with value to offer the world.