Self-Affirmation May Help Keep You Active

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Man Running on Treadmill
Photo: Don Nichols/(c) Don Nichols

Self-affirmation — a fancy way of saying “Sitting down and reflecting on the things and people that are important to you” — is a pretty hot concept in psychology at the moment. As Science of Us has noted, it’s shown promise as a way of making your apologies sound more sincere and, in a good-size meta-analysis, looked pretty effective as a means of getting people to stick to healthier behaviors.

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science digs a bit deeper into why self-affirmation might work. The authors, led by Emily Falk of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, sought to address one of the key challenges to providing people with information about how to live healthier: hearing that you’re not eating right or exercising enough can come across as threatening to your sense of self. Self-affirmation, the reasoning goes, can help defuse this sense of threat.

The press release runs down the findings:

Falk and her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine a part of the brain involved in processing self-relevance called ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). The team examined activity in this region as sedentary adults were given the type of advice they might get from a doctor (e.g. – “People who sit less are at lower risk for certain diseases.”). Participants who were guided through a self-affirmation exercise before getting the health advice showed higher levels of activity in this key brain region during the health advice, and then went on to show a steeper decline in couch-potato-type sedentary behaviors in the month following the intervention. Those who were instructed to think about values that weren’t as important to them showed lower levels of activity in the key brain region during exposure to the health advice and maintained their original levels of sedentary behavior. 

All this goes back to the notion that providing people with information alone often doesn’t do much to change their behavior. Context matters hugely to behavioral change, particularly context that can tie the behavioral change in question to people’s deepest sense of themselves and their values. Self-affirmation is looking more and more like an effective way to lay the proper sort of groundwork.