Be yourself, but always your better self. — Karl Maeser
I want you to do a little exercise I do with my class before they receive the grades for their first attempt at writing a research paper where the class average is a C-/D+:
From the following six topics, please mentally rank them in order of their personal importance:
- Social life/Relationships
- Science/Pursuit of Knowledge
Now, I would like you to select the one you ranked highest and think about why it is so important and meaningful to you. Typically, in my class (and in the studies) people will write for five to ten minutes with these instructions, but if I’ve convinced you to even keep reading along at this point, I’ll consider it a victory.
Okay, go back to actually contemplating why you value that component of life as you do.
How do you feel? Maybe a little energized? Maybe happy? Resilient even? If you were in my class and I handed you a paper with a 68% at the top, would you now feel less threatened by the bad grade? Would you be less likely to send me a typo-filled email about how unfairly I evaluate?
See why I do this with my students?
What you just engaged in is known as self-affirmation, a very well studied phenomenon in the psychological literature. Essentially, researchers assert that this task helps to “maintain the integrity of the self,” which serves as a protective barrier to one’s self-image and self-worth in the face of negative information.
For example, when most people go about their days, they believe they’re good people, that they’re competent, capable of free choice, and overall coherent individuals. However, when people encounter information that is threatening to this image (e.g., you consider yourself competent but then you get this bad grade from a meanie teacher), they get defensive and hurt.
And that’s where self-affirmation can come in.
There are a lot of reasons you consider yourself a good person: maybe you pride yourself on your athleticism, or your intelligence, or your looks, or your ability to make people laugh. In other words, there are a culmination of traits that make you the good person that you are (which you must be if you’re reading this blog).
However, when we encounter negative information like poor performance at work, or making an oral flub while public speaking, or burning the pizza when Siri thought you wanted a 50 minute timer instead of 15, we focus really heavily on that threatening information about ourselves—completely forgetting that there are a bunch of other traits that make us the good people we are.
When you do a self-affirmation task, it broadens your “perspective of the self”—that is, it makes you consider all the other qualities that make you a good and likable person. For example, if you do a self-affirmation task before receiving a bad grade, you don’t spend as much time dwelling on the negativity of that one self-aspect (your competence on this paper) because you have been reminded of the many other self-aspects that are important to you.
So the next time you’re expecting bad news, try doing this self-affirmation task beforehand and see if it doesn’t protect you from the defensive hurt that may otherwise rise. Or if you have to deliver some bad news yourself, consider sending them to this post first 😉
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: What are some of the times in your own life where taking a broader perspective on your positive qualities could have improved your response to a negative event? How could you potentially use this tactic for something like the outcome of the Presidential election?
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,41(1), 3-18.