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Self affirmation theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Self affirmation, in which individuals reflect upon their values, has been shown to foster resilience. In particular, after individuals consider the facets of their life they most value, they are less inclined to exhibit anxious or defensive responses in the aftermath of criticisms, rejections, or other personal threats.

Usually, individuals are merely invited to select which option from a list of domains, such as money, relationships, art, or knowledge, they feel are most important. These individuals are then asked to write about why they value this facet. This exercise alone is sufficient to amplify resilience. For example, after this exercise, individuals are less inclined to ruminate over criticisms. Self affirmation theory explains these findings.


Obviously, individuals strive to maintain a positive image of themselves, perceiving themselves as desirable and favorable. According to self affirmation theory, propounded by Steele (1988), individuals do not strive to perceive themselves favorably in every facet of their live. They merely attempt to maintain a global perception of themselves as positive--that is, to demonstrate integrity. When a specific attribute is challenged. For example, individuals might be informed they cannot sing& they do not necessarily feel the motivation to trivialize or deny this criticism. Instead, they can reinforce their image of themselves through other means, often by merely highlighting their values. These exercises are intended to activate the facets of the self that individuals regard as worthy.

In other words, individuals do not necessarily strive to perceive themselves as competent on every facet of their lives. Instead, they like to feel they are moral and proficient overall (Steele, 1988).

Consequences of self affirmation

Many studies have confirmed the tenets of self affirmation theory (e.g., Cohen, Aronson, & Steele, 2000; Correll, Spencer, & Zanna, 2004; Liu & Steele, 1986 & Reed & Aspinwall, 1998 & Tesser & Cornell, 1991), demonstrating that self affirmation diminishes the incidence of various defensive reactions. Indeed, a variety of studies have shown that reflecting upon personal values reduces susceptibility to threats, consistent with self affirmation theory (e.g., Sherman & Cohen, 2002; Sherman & Kim, 2005).

For example, in a study undertaken by Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, and Dijksterhuis (2006), participants were asked to prioritize various domains in their life, such as aesthetics, religion, economics, social life, business, and politics. In some, but not all, participants, self affirmation was encouraged by instructing participants to complete another questionnaire that assesses the extent to which they value the domain they designated as most important. If participants engaged in this self affirmation, negative feedback about their performance on an ability test was less likely to provoke rumination. Indeed, many studies show that self affirmation curbs defensive reactions to threatening or upsetting information (Sherman, Nelson, & Steele, 2000 & Siegel, Scillitoe, & Parks-Yancy, 2005).

Attitudes to other social categories

Self affirmation also diminishes the effect of personal threats on attitudes towards other ethnicities, roles, and so forth. In one study, conducted by Rudman, Dohn, and Fairchild (2007), some but not all participants received a rejection from peers, representing a personal threat. In addition, some of these participants engaged in an exercise that involves self affirmation in which they wrote about why they value a domain they earlier designated as important--usually social relationships. If individuals had not engaged in this exercise, the personal threat provoked prejudicial attitudes, as measured by the implicit association test. If individuals had engaged in this exercise, however, the personal threat did not evoke prejudice. Other studies have also confirmed that threats provoke prejudices, as represented by explicit measures, unless self affirmation is encouraged (Fein & Spencer, 1997; Schmeichel & Martens, 2005).


The finding that self affirmation curbs defensive reactions--and indeed many other observations in this strand of literature--can be ascribed to the capacity of individuals to withstand threat and the concomitant resilience. That is, after individuals experience self affirmation, they can accept various threats, such as strident criticisms, unpleasant information, or impending failures, without persistent or marked anxiety.

Some studies have directly examined the effect of self affirmation on responses to potential threats. For example, before individuals need to speak in public, levels of cortisol, which coincide with a feeling of anxiety, tend to rise. This rise in cortisol, however, is less pronounced if these individuals had affirmed one of their values (e.g., Cresswell, Welch, Taylor, Sherman, Gruenewald, & Mann, 2005).


Self affirmation has been shown to curb aggression, at least in young adolescents, especially in individuals who demonstrate signs of narcissism. In one study, conducted by Thomaes, Bushman, de Castro, Cohen, and Denissen (2009), school students completed the childhood narcissism scale. Next, they evaluated the extent to which they felt satisfied with themselves in the past week, to gauge state self esteem. Then, all the students rated one another on the extent to which they behave aggressively.

After they completed these questionnaires, some of the participants completed a self affirmation exercise. They received a series of 12 values, like athletic ability, music, relationships, humor, creativity, and independence, and were asked to write about their two or three most important values. Other participants wrote about why their two or three least important values might be important to other people. Five weeks later, they repeated this exercise. Finally, a few weeks later, self esteem and aggression was measured again.

Two key findings emerged. First, before the intervention, narcissism was positively related to aggression, but only when state self esteem was low. Presumably, individuals who demonstrate narcissism become aggressive when their identity is undermined--as represented by low state self esteem. Second, this pattern dissipated after individuals wrote about their most important values.

These findings indicate that self affirmation might buttress, rather than raise, self esteem (Thomaes, Bushman, de Castro, Cohen, & Denissen, 2009). That is, when individuals reflect upon their values, they realize their worth is not confined to a specific domain in their life. Their attitudes towards themselves are less sensitive to specific threats, such as criticism. They will, therefore, respond less aggressively in response to these threats.


Self affirmation has been shown, in some contexts, to enhance the performance or competence of individuals. In one study, conducted by Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006), the participants, all of whom were African American school students, were asked to write about either an important value or unimportant value, at the beginning of a school term. The students who wrote about an important value, representing self affirmation, subsequently received higher grades at the end of this term.

According to Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006), the stereotype that African American students do not perform proficiently at school elicits anxiety in these individuals. This anxiety is especially likely to be evoked after they perform modestly on some examination or test. Self affirmation tends to curb the anxiety that such failures or difficulties can elicit, which in turn enhances performance (see also Martens, Johns, Greenburg, & Schimel, 2006).

Goal disengagement

Sometimes, after failing to achieve some goal, people should disengage from this pursuit and consider an alternative objective instead, called goal disengagement. Some people, however, do not disengage readily. They persist with some untenable goal and, therefore, squander time and effort. According to research by Vohs, Park, and Schmeichel (2012), however, self-affirmation facilitates the capacity of people to disengage when necessary.

In one study, half the participants wrote about their most important value--the most common protocol to foster self-affirmation. Other participants wrote about an unimportant value. Next, participants imagined they had decided no longer to pursue some goal, such as losing weight. They were then asked questions such as "...I wouldn't be able to let it go" (reverse scored), indicative of the capacity of people to disengage. Self-affirmation did increase goal disengagement, as gauged by this scale. Other measures that were also administered, such as self-esteem or approach versus avoidance, were not significantly related to goal disengagement.

A second study showed that self-affirmation fosters disengagement from an actual, rather than merely an imagined, task. Participants, all of whom were inexperienced with chopsticks, were instructed to move rice with this implement. None of the participants could complete this task. Yet, for some of the participants, this failure was emphasized, because these individuals were instructed to move the rice rapidly and well. For other participants, this failure was not emphasized, because these individuals were instructed merely to try. After their initial failure, participants were asked whether or not they would like to continue.

If self-affirmation had been induced, participants were not as inclined to continue with this task if failure had been emphasized but more inclined to continue with this task if failure had not been emphasized. This finding is consistent with the premise that self-affirmation promotes goal disengagement after failure but can promote motivation otherwise.

Additional studies replicated and extended these findings. For example, self-affirmation promotes goal disengagement only when participants were informed the task is unattainable rather than attainable. Furthermore, after people fail, their self-efficacy is especially likely to diminish if combined with self-affirmation. Presumably, after self-affirmation is induced, people are more receptive to information that is important but may be upsetting or distressing. They are, therefore, more willing to recognize they may be inadequate one some task, diminishing self-efficacy after failures and promoting disengagement.

Detrimental effects of self-affirmation

According to Munro and Stansbury (2009), self-affirmation can provke some complications. In particular, after people affirm their values or strengths, they do not feel as threatened by information that highlights risks and hazards. Because they do not feel as threatened, they might not devote enough attention to this information, sometimes eliciting biases and oversights.

To illustrate, in one study, some participants wrote about a time in their life in which they felt their most important value was meaningful, a variant of self-affirmation. In the control condition, participants wrote about their least important value. Next, participants completed a contrived questionnaire, supposedly to ascertain whether they tend to be highly emotional or not.

Finally, they completed a task similar to the Wason Selection Task. They were told that some monks and rabbis who die young tend to be highly emotional. Four cards were presented. Each card represented one monk or rabbi. One side of each card specified indicated this person died young or old. The other side indicated whether this person was highly emotional or not. However, participants could see only one side of these four cards, printed with the words died young, died old, highly emotional, and not emotional respectively. Participants were asked which two cards they should flip to assess the hypothesis that monks and rabbis who die young tend to be highly emotional.

Participants are supposed to flip the cards die young and low emotional. Most participants answered this question incorrectly. They chose to flip the high emotional card. Yet, according to the hypothesis, people who are highly emotional could die young or old and, therefore, this card is not informative. Yet, if participants themselves were told they are highly emotional, they tended to flip the right cards, but only if they did not affirm their values.

Arguably, when people were told they are highly emotional and, therefore, felt threatened by the information, they considered the matter carefully. Yet, if they also affirmed their values, this sense of threat dissipated, and the matter was not considered carefully.

Neural and biological underpinnings

Shrira and Martin (2005) showed that self affirmation tends to activate the left hemisphere. In their study, some participants were asked to describe a behavior they have undertaken in the past that was intended to fulfill one of their most important goals or values. These participants, when asked to identify the centre of a horizontal line without the use of a ruler, to specify a spot that is nearer to the left rather than right end--which usually reflects a bias towards the left hemisphere.

According to Crocker, Niiya, Mischkowski (2008), self affirmation might be underpinned by increases in oxytocin. That is, oxytocin underpins many of the features that characterize self affirmation. Oxytocin, for example, diminishes the effect of stress on the rise of cortisol (Henry & Wang, 1998). In addition, oxytocin seems to increase trust (Zak, Kurzban, & Matzner, 2004).

Variants and determinants of self affirmation

Group affirmation

The concept of self affirmation can also be extended to groups. That is, after individuals affirm the values of key groups, they also become less defensive about this collective (Sherman, Kinias, Major, Kim, & Prenovost, 2007).

In one study, reported by Sherman, Kinias, Major, Kim, and Prenovost (2007), some participants were granted an opportunity to affirm the key values of their sports team. That is, these individuals ranked the extent to which a series of values, like religion or relationships, are important to the team. Next, they wrote three reasons to specify why this value is important to the team.

After these phases, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which a specific victory or defeat could be ascribed to the performance of their teammates or the own performance. If participants had not completed the affirmation task, they ascribed victories, but not defeats, to both the performance of teammates and their own performance. That is, they showed an attribution bias, assuming responsibility for success and denying responsibility for failure. If participants had completed the group affirmation task, however, they were equally like to ascribe victories and defeats to the performance of teammates.

Accordingly, after individuals completed the group affirmation, they did not need feel the need to defend their group. That is, they were not as defensive and could ascribe failures to deficits in the team.

Presumably, if individuals feel their group has been threatened or undermined, these group affirmations might enhance resilience. In contrast, if individuals feel their personal status has been threatened or undermined, self affirmations might be more effective (Sherman, Kinias, Major, Kim, & Prenovost, 2007). Consistent with this premise, self affirmations did not curb the inclination of participants to ascribe failures to the performance of teammates. Similarly, group affirmation did not curb the inclination of individuals to ascribe failures to personal performance (Sherman, Kinias, Major, Kim, & Prenovost, 2007).

Implications of group affirmation: Leniency

Miron, Branscombe, and Biernat (2010) showed that individuals often justify unsuitable behaviors that are perpetrated by their collectives or groups. That is, they frequently perceive these unethical acts as just rather than illegitimate. Their criterion becomes more lenient, called confirmatory justice standards. Nevertheless, group affirmation, in which individuals consider the most inspiring qualities or achievements of their collectives, tends to curb this bias (Miron, Branscombe, & Biernat, 2010).

To assess these arguments, in one study, American participants completed a questionnaire. They were informed the study was an assessment of the knowledge and perceptions of individuals about historical events. Some of the scales assessed the extent to which they felt the behaviors of White Americans towards Africans were justifiable. Some of the questions were intended to assess the extent to which participants felt that Americans had harmed Africans. A typical question is "How many Africans were affected by the American slavery policy?", and participants answered the question on some rating scale. A related set of questions assessed the level of harm that participants feel would need to have been perpetrated to be regarded as unjust. To illustrate, participants might have been asked to "Please indicate what percentage of Americans would have had to be involved in causing harm to Africans for you to consider the past United States a racist nation". Finally, participants completed questions that assess the level of guilt they feel towards the actions of Americans and the extent to which they identify themselves with this nation.

Relative to participants who did not identity strongly with the nation, participants who did identify strongly with the nation increased the threshold that needs to be exceeded before behavior is regarded as unethical. That is, their standards were more lenient. Consequently, they felt the behavior of Americans was not as harmful and did not experience appreciable guilt (Miron, Branscombe, & Biernat, 2010).

The second study was similar, except level of identification with America was manipulated rather than measured, to establish the direction of causality more definitively. In particular, to increase this sense of identity, some participants wrote an essay that emphasized a time in which they felt similar to the typical American and an occasion in which they felt connected to the nation. In contrast, other participants wrote an essay that emphasized a time in which they felt dissimilar to the typical American and an occasion in which they felt dissociated from the nation. The same pattern of findings emerged: Level of identification curbed the likelihood that American behavior towards Africans was perceived as unethical and harmful (Miron, Branscombe, & Biernat, 2010).

As the final study demonstrated, when individuals affirmed the integrity of their group, this bias diminished. That is, to affirm the group, some participants were asked to consider three positive changes that America has introduced over the course of history and write about why these changes are typical of the nation. After they affirmed the nation, even the individuals who identified with this collective did not perceive their actions towards Africans as justifiable. Accordingly, when individuals do not feel as motivated to protect the reputation of their nation, they did not show this bias. These findings, thus, show the inclination to perceive these contentious behaviors as justifiable emanates from the motivation to protect the group (Miron, Branscombe, & Biernat, 2010)--a finding that offers obvious implications for counterterrorism and deradicalization.

Implications of group affirmation: Receptivity to guilt and shame

People do not always accept the injustices that were perpetrated by their own group, gender, or nation. Instead, they often justify these injustices or atrocities. To illustrate, for many years, women were not permitted to vote or even own their own property. Yet, some men assert these practices were merely a function of the time and not as harmful as they may seem. Similarly, for many years, Aboriginal children in Australia and Canada were treated inhumanely by authorities. However, many Australians and Canadians claim these practices were intended to be helpful.

Nevertheless, group affirmation may diminish these defensive reactions. That is, after individuals reflect upon the main values of their group, they tend to feel more certain about their priorities and qualities. Because of this certainty, they are more receptive to unfavorable information. That is, they know their perception of their group is not as vulnerable to such information. Consequently, they do not behave as defensively. They embrace the information, and thus experience concomitant guilt and shame. To override this guilt and shame, they may be receptive to reparation, such as compensation.

Gunn and Wilson (2011) undertook a series of studies that corroborate these premises as well as differentiate the roles of guilt and shame. In one study, some men undertook a task that affirms their sex. In particular, a list of values, such as self-discipline, family, politics, loyalty, creativity, originality, appearance, fashion, honesty, concern for others, patience, spirituality, social issues, friendships, independence, athletics, and money, was presented. Participants wrote about the one value they feel is most important to men, justifying why this value is significant. In the control conditions, participants wrote about the value that is least important to men.

Next, they read about the injustices perpetrated to women around 1900. They read that domestic violence was common, and even accepted, and that women were not encouraged to work after they married, for example. Finally, participants completed a measure of collective guilt, such as "I can easily feel guilty about the bad outcomes received by women in the past". Group affirmation increased the propensity of participants to experience guilt.

The second study was similar, except the participants were Canadians, who read about the injustices perpetrated against Aboriginal children. Furthermore, in addition to answering questions about collective guilt, they also answered questions about collective shame, such as "I feel ashamed of how others might look at or think about Canada because of the harm inflicted against Aboriginals in residential schools". Group affirmation fostered both collective guilt and collective shame.

The third study extended the second study, but also explored whether such feelings of guilt and shame translate to a willingness to compensate in some way. Specifically, participants were asked questions like "Should Aboriginals be compensated by Canada for the harms they endured in residential schools?" and "How willing are you personally to take action to ensure that the harms committed against Aboriginals in residential schools are redressed?"

Collective guilt was positively associated with willingness to compensate, especially if the group of participants--their nationality--had been affirmed. Collective shame was positively associated with willingness to compensate, but especially if the group had not been affirmed.

These findings offer some insight into the difference between collective guilt and collective shame. Collective guilt corresponds to a concern about the welfare of other people. This guilt can be relieved only by assisting other people. Collective shame corresponds more to a concern in individuals about the identity or integrity of their own group. This shame can be relieved either by behaving with integrity, and thus assisting other people, or by defensive reactions, such as trivializing the injustices they committed. A concern for other people perhaps only arises after identity has been affirmed. Therefore, after the group has been affirmed, guilt may eventually supersede shame, increasing the willingness of individuals to help the other group.

In the final study, participants also answered questions that assess whether they embrace defensive reactions, such as trivializing past indiscretions. A sample item is "The treatment of Aboriginal children in residential schools reflected the norms of the time and should not be judged by today's standards of fairness". Group affirmation did indeed reduce the likelihood of these defensive reactions.

Attractive products

As Townsend and Sood (2012) showed, after individuals are granted an opportunity to choose a product that looks better than rival brands, they experience the hallmarks of self-affirmation. Specifically, individuals tend to value aesthetic appearance. If they choose an attractive brand, they associate this aesthetic appearance with themselves. That is, on some level, they feel they demonstrate one of their values: aesthetic appearance. Their self is thus affirmed.

Townsend and Sood (2012) conducted a series of studies that confirm this possibility. In one study, participants needed to choose between pairs of products. The products differed on price as well as one other attribute, such as aesthetics, convenience, or functionality. Furthermore, the price differences were manipulated to encourage some participants to choose the option that was aesthetically pleasing. Next, participants were asked to indicate whether they endorse testing products on animals before reading an article that opposes their opinion& finally they rated this article. If participants had chosen an attractive brand, they were more inclined to rate the article that had opposed their opinion favorably. That is, they were receptive to information that diverges from their attitudes--a hallmark of self-affirmation. Likewise, in a subsequent study, after choosing an attractive product, individuals were not as likely to demonstrate escalation of commitment, also consistent with self-affirmation.

As further evidence of this argument, in another study, also conducted by Townsend and Sood (2012), some participants wrote an essay about their most important value, to elicit self-affirmation. In the control condition, participants either wrote about why their least important value is significant to a typical student or wrote about the activities they completed a few hours earlier. After self-affirmation had been induced, participants were not as inclined to choose an attractive product over a less expensive brand. Presumably, these individuals did not need to affirm the self any further.

Methodological issues

Measures of self affirmation

To assess whether manipulations of self affirmation are effective, some researchers administer a scale, intended to assess perceptions of self integrity (e.g., Sherman, Nelson, Bunyan, Cohen, Nussbaum, & Garcia, 2009). The scale comprises eight items. Typical items are "I am a good person", "I am comfortable with who I am", and "Even though there is always room for self-improvement, I feel a sense of completeness about who I fundamentally am". Internal consistency approximates .84 (Sherman, Nelson, Bunyan, Cohen, Nussbaum, & Garcia, 2009).

Other manipulations of self affirmation

Implicit or subtle manipulations of self affirmation have also been developed and validated. In a study conducted by Sherman, Nelson, Bunyan, Cohen, Nussbaum, and Garcia (2009), for example, participants first ranked a series of five value--art, science, social issues, politics, and religion--from most to least important. Next, they completed the sentence unscrambling task. That is, sets of five words were presented. Participants were instructed to form sentences from four of these five words. To induce self affirmation, words that correspond to their most important value, such as the word color if art was designated as their key priority, were often embedded in this task.

These words elicited many of the benefits and responses to self affirmation. To illustrate, after participants were exposed to these words, their performance on a mathematics test was undeterred by previous failures. In contrast, if individuals had not been exposed to these words, their performance diminished if they had completed a previous test inadequately.

In another study, conducted by Gal and Rucker (2010), participants were instead asked to specify their favorite food, book, city, movie, song, or hobby to prime self affirmation. This manipulation successfully reduced the extent to which participants were threatened by feelings of uncertainty.

Specifically, in this study, participants were asked to express their attitudes towards testing animals to improve the safety of products. They were then asked to transcribe this attitude with either their preferred hand or non-preferred hand. When individuals write with their non-preferred hand, they become more likely to doubt their assumptions (see self validation theory). Finally, they were asked to write a message that was designed to persuade someone else to adopt their attitudes.

If participants wrote their attitude with their non-preferred hand, and thus doubted their beliefs, they devoted more effort to their attempts to persuade someone else. In particular, they wrote more words to convince this person, as a means to reinforce their beliefs and overcome their uncertainty. Interestingly, however, if these participants had previously been granted an opportunity to consider their favorite food, book, city, movie, song, or hobby, this effect diminished. Accordingly, if their perception of themselves had been bolstered, these participants did not feel they needed to reinforce their challenged beliefs.

Factors that amplify or inhibit the benefits of self affirmation

Self affirmation is not as effective if individuals expect this process to improve their mental state. In a study conducted by Sherman, Nelson, Bunyan, Cohen, Nussbaum, and Garcia (2009), some of the participants were granted an opportunity to write about their most important value. Half of these participants were informed this exercise is intended to improve their self esteem. Other participants did not receive this instruction. Subsequently, all participants, who were supporters of the San Francisco Giants, read an article that maintains that one of their players, Barry Bonds, is dishonorable. Participants rated the validity of this article.

Consistent with most studies in this domain, self affirmation did indeed increase the receptivity of participants to this article that denigrates their own team. That is, after writing about a value, individuals seemed to be less defensive. Nevertheless, if participants had been informed this exercise improves self esteem, the benefits of self affirmation diminished. In other words, self affirmation, if expected to improve mental states, was not effective.

Similarly, in the next study conducted by Sherman, Nelson, Bunyan, Cohen, Nussbaum, and Garcia (2009), some participants, who were all university students, wrote about their most important value. Subsequently, they were asked to evaluate whether or not they are more or less susceptible to heart disease, skin cancer, and other problems than an average student. Generally, after self affirmation was induced, participants conceded they were as susceptible to these hazards as other students. That is, they were not defensive, but appraised their risks accurately.

Interestingly, before completing the two tasks, some of the participants were informed these activities were connected. That is, they were informed the writing task might bias their estimated susceptibility to hazards. These individuals, even after writing about their most important value, maintained they were not susceptible to these hazards. That is, self affirmation did not curb their defensive reactions and was not effective.

These findings are consistent with the notion of a psychological immune system. In particular, according to Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998), when individuals are exposed to threats, such as criticisms, a variety of defensive responses are evoked, all of which maintain the emotional state of individuals. Individuals, for example, might denigrate the criticism or focus attention on the strengths.

Importantly, however, when individuals become aware of these defensive reactions, the benefits of these responses dissipates (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998). Several studies confirm this proposition. That is, when individuals strive to elicit positive mood states, unpleasant emotions are more likely to prevail (Schooler, Ariely, & Lowenstein, 2003). Likewise, when individuals attempt to enhance their self esteem, they actually experience less positive attitudes towards themselves (see Crocker & Park, 2004).

These problems arise, at least partly, because individuals often strive to nullify biases. To illustrate, individuals tend to feel happier on sunny days relative to cloudy days. Nevertheless, if participants are first asked to describe the weather, happiness does not differ between sunny and cloudy days (Schwartz & Clore, 1983). Presumably, participants recognize their mood might be biased by the weather. Hence, if sunny, their initial assumption they feel positive is adjusted, and a more negative mood is reported.

Transcendent versus enhancement values

According to self-affirmation theory, when people affirm their values, they are more resilient in response to threats, such as criticism or rejection. Burson, Crocker, and Mischkowski (2012), however, introduced an important qualification to this contention. Specifically, they found that affirmation of values that revolve around helping other people or communities enhances this resilience. In contrast, if people affirm values that revolve around improving their own lives, they are not as resilient.

Presumably, when people affirm values that revolve around helping other people or communities--called self-transcendent values--they become more attuned to interests or needs beyond their own lives. Their personal needs do not seem as significant. Consequently, they can withstand personal criticism or rejection.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Burson, Crocker, and Mischkowski (2012), some participants were excluded by other people. That is, nobody chose to collaborate with these participants. Other participants were not excluded by other people. Next, all participants were instructed to affirm either a transcendent value--such as compassion, caring relationships, growth, trust, or contributing to something that is important to the community--or a self-enhancement value--such as status, wealth, confidence, attractiveness, popularity, and reputation of intelligence. Finally, various measures were introduced to gauge the emotions and self-esteem of individuals as well as their capacity to resist the temptation to consume cookies.

In general, when participants felt excluded, their capacity to resist cookies declined. However, if these individuals had affirmed values that transcend themselves, such as compassion or contribution to the community, this capacity to resist temptations was preserved. Presumably, because these individuals reflected upon values that transcend themselves, they were not as offended or threatened by rejection. They were not as distracted by anxieties about rejection--or they did not need to suppress these anxieties as vigorously. Consequently, their mental effort was preserved rather than depleted.

Choice versus obligation

If people write about their most important value, such as justice or beauty, they tend to become more resilient. For example, they can perform well on mathematics questions even after failing on a previous test. The benefit of this exercise may diminish, however, if participants are informed about the benefits of this self-affirmation procedures. Fortunately, if people are then granted choice over whether to complete this exercise--or over which value to write about--the benefits of this procedure remain intact (Silverman, Logel, & Cohen, 2013).


Some details of the theory have sparked controversy. For example, the mechanisms or states that mediate the effect of self affirmation on resilience have not been established definitively. Some scholars, such as Tesser and Cornell (1991), argue that self affirmation improves mood or affect, which in turn generates the various benefits. Nevertheless, Steele, Spencer, and Lynch (1993) showed that manipulations of affect did not afford the same benefits as self affirmation. Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, and Dijksterhuis (2006) partly resolved this controversy, showing that self affirmation does promote unconscious, but not conscious, changes in affect--as reflected by a projective test of mood.

Self esteem

Whether or not the benefits of self affirmation can be ascribed to a boost in self esteem also remains a contentious issue. Some studies indicate that writing about important values does not boost self esteem (Schmeichel & Martens, 2005). In contrast, Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, and Dijksterhuis (1999) showed that writing about important values improves attitudes towards personal initials, which is a measure of implicit self esteem. However, this change in implicit self esteem did not mediate the effect of self affirmation of subsequent decrements in rumination.

According to Thomaes, Bushman, de Castro, Cohen, and Denissen (2009), self affirmation does not always raise self esteem. Instead, self affirmation buttresses self esteem--that is, ensures self esteem is less sensitive to threats, like criticisms. When individuals reflect upon more enduring values, they recognize their worth is not dependent upon performance in specific domains. They can, therefore, withstand failures or criticisms in these confined facets of their life.

An related perspective is that self affirmation activates some personal values, diminishing the perceived importance of facets that were threatened (Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995). For example, after receiving criticism about their singing, individuals are less inclined to perceive this skill as important after affirming the significance of other values.

Broader focus of attention

According to Crocker, Niiya, and Mischkowski (2008), self affirmation increases the likelihood that participants direct their feelings towards other individuals. That is, after individuals affirm their values, they become more likely to become trusting, open, and loving. These feelings, in turn, reduce the likelihood of defensive reactions.

For example, in a study conducted by Crocker, and Niiya, Mischkowski (2008), participants first ranked six domains or values, such as business, art, social life, knowledge, morality, and politics. To affirm the self, some individuals then wrote about their most important value, focusing on why this value is meaningful and significant. In the control condition, participants wrote about their least important value, focusing on why this value is meaningful and significant to other individuals.

Participants who had affirmed the self were more likely to endorse feelings like love and connection. Such feelings were also inversely related to subsequent defensive reactions to threatening information. Hence, after individuals reflect upon why some value or facet of their life is important, they become more sensitive to issues and events that transcend their own personal needs. As a consequence, they feel less defensive, which increases their feelings of connection to other individuals as well as augments their receptivity to novel information.

Abstract construal

Similarly, Schmeichel and Vohs (2009) showed that self affirmation fosters an inclination to focus attention on broad, abstract concepts rather than specific, tangible features. This attention to abstract concepts activates endurnig values rather than immediate needs (see Construal level theory).

Wakslak and Trope (2009) also maintained that some of the benefits of self affirmation can be ascribed to an abstract construal of events. That is, as construal level theory contends, individuals sometimes orient their attention to the tangible, concrete features of objects or events. In other settings, individuals might orient their attention to intangible, abstract qualities instead. If observing someone locking a door, they might describe this behavior as "securing a house"--which refers to an unobservable, abstract intention--rather than "turning a key"--which alludes to an observable, concrete act.

According to proponents of construal level theory, when individuals focus their attention on the core qualities of some person or object, rather than incidental actions, an abstract construal is likely to be primed (e.g., Trope & Liberman, 2000, 2003). Self affirmation encourages individuals to contemplate their core, enduring qualities. This argument implies that self affirmation might also incite an abstract construal.

Wakslak and Trope (2009) conducted a series of studies, all demonstrating that self affirmation fosters an abstract construal. The first study showed that self affirmation increases self clarity. That is, after individuals reflect upon their most important value, they were less inclined to endorse questions such as "I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality" and "My belief about myself seems to change very frequently". Presumably, self affirmation might evoke an abstract construal, in which individuals might become more cognizant of their core, enduring qualities. They might, therefore, be perceived as more stable over time.

In subsequent studies, after participants deliberate on their most important value, they are more inclined to allude to the underlying objective of some behavior--instead of the acts that were undertake--which represents an abstract construal (Wakslak & Trope, 2009). In addition, self affirmation also increases the likelihood that individuals prefer alternatives that are exemplary on core, rather than peripheral, features. They prefer radios with excellent sound quality, but with no clock, rather than vice versa (Wakslak & Trope, 2009). Finally, after values are affirmed, individuals can readily identify broader patterns but often overlook subtle details. They do not, for example, perform well on tasks in which they need to identify which details are missing from a picture (Wakslak & Trope, 2009).

Conceivably, many of the benefits of self affirmation can be ascribed to the effects of an abstract construal. When individuals apply an abstract construal, they focus on future objectives rather than immediate needs (e.g., Fujita, Trope, Liberman, & Levin-Sagi, 2006). Hence, they perceive negative feedback as an opportunity to pursue these objectives more effectively. The observation that self affirmation promotes openness to threatening health information and reduces defensive reactions (e.g., Sherman, Nelson, & Steele, 2000 & Siegel, Scillitoe, & Parks-Yancy, 2005) could be mediated by an abstract construal.

Discrete domains

The core assumption of self affirmation theory is that threats to one facet of life can be overridden by affirmation of another facet of life (e.g., Tesser, 2000, 2001 & Tesser, Crepaz, Collins, Cornell, & Beach, 2000). If the intelligence of individuals is challenged, for example, individuals will attempt to reinforce another facet of their life, such as their relationships, creativity, or stability, for example.

Knowles, Lucas, Molden, Gardner, and Dean (2009), however, challenged this assumption. According to these researchers, when the need to belong is threatened, individuals do not experience the need to affirm another facet of their life, such as their cognitive intelligence or emotional stability. Instead, they attempt to affirm their capacity to belong. That is, when this need to belong is threatened, social relationships must be reinforced& other capacities cannot compensate the dissolution of these relationships.

To assess this possibility, Knowles, Lucas, Molden, Gardner, and Dean (2009) conducted a series of studies. In the first study, participants wrote about a time in which their relationships or their intelligence was threatened. Next, they were granted an opportunity to write about a key value--to affirm one facet of their lives. If participants reminisced about a time in which their relationships had been threatened, they tended to write about a social rather than academic or unrelated value. In contrast, if participants reminisced about a time in which their intelligence had been threatened, they often wrote about a value that was unrelated to academia.

The second study was similar except, after they reminisced about an occasion in which their relationships or intelligence was threatened, they completed an personality test. That is, they rated the extent to which they are compassionate, intelligent, or musical, for example. If participants reminisced about a time in which their relationships had been threatened, they rated their social qualities favorably, attempting to affirm this domain. In contrast, if participants reminisced about a time in which their intelligence had been threatened, they did not rate their academic qualities more favorably than other traits. This pattern of findings also persisted when participants received contrived, negative feedback--rather than reminisced about previous events--to threatened either relationships or intelligence.

Value affirmation versus attribute affirmation

To resolve many of controversies in this literature, Stapel and van der Linde (2011) showed that self affirmation comprises two distinct variants: value affirmation and attribute affirmation. Value affirmation is epitomized by procedures in which individuals are asked to identify the domain they most value, such as religion, arts, literature, or politics, and then to write about this value. Specifically, they are usually instructed to write why this value is meaningful and important to their lives. Attribute affirmation is epitomized by procedures in which individuals are asked to write about two of their strengths--qualities in which they excel relative to peers.

As their first study showed, value affirmation promotes self clarity, whereas attribute affirmation promotes self esteem. That is, compared to a control group, participants who were granted an opportunity to affirm their values reported an elevated level of self clarity (see optimal self esteem), as gauged by questions that include "On one day I might have one opinion of myself and on another day I might have a different opinion" (reverse scored). Accordingly, after individuals confirm their values, they are more certain of their goals and priorities. In contrast, compared to a control group, participants who were granted an opportunity to affirm their attributes reported an elevated level of self esteem.

Because attribute affirmation boosts self esteem, this procedure also increases the likelihood that individuals are not as threatened by superior people. That is, as the second study showed, even after they read about people who have excelled, individuals who had affirmed their attributes maintained their self esteem.

Because value attribution clarifies the goals and priorities of individuals, this procedure curbs sensitivity to dissonance. To illustrate, when individuals are encouraged, but not obliged, to write about a topic that diverges from their opinions--such as when students need to write about the need to administer harsher exams--they experience a sense of dissonance or a feeling of unease (see cognitive dissonance theory). This unease corresponds to a sense of uncertainty. In response, they often shift their attitudes to align to their behaviors and might even embrace harsher exams. However, as the third study showed, if these individuals first confirm their values, they are not as sensitive to this dissonance. They feel more certain and thus do not shift their attitudes towards exams.

Practical implications

To curb prejudices against other departments, vocations, ethnicities, and so forth, employees should occasionally be encouraged to identify which domain or facet of their life is most important: wealth, religion, relationships, creativity, appearance, knowledge, and so forth. Once they identify this domain, they should be asked to write about why this facet is so important. This information could also be used to inform strategies and policies, ensuring that employees do not perceive this exercise as futile.

Alternatively, after individuals prioritize their values, they could be asked to describe one or two acts they have undertaken that were intended to fulfill this goal. To ensure this process seems valuable, this information could be stored in a database as a source of advice for other employees.

Related theories

Self-identity threat and resistance to change

When people feel their identity--that is, their perceptions of themselves--are threatened, they are more likely to resist change. They may not, for example, change their mode of travel as a means to diminish carbon emissions (Murtagh, Gatersleben, & Uzzell, 2012).

Murtagh, Gatersleben, and Uzzell (2012) invoked identity process theory, proposed by Breakwell (1986, 1988), to explain the role of identity self-identity threat in this resistance to change. According to this theory, the self-concept of individuals, or their perception of themselves, gradually evolves over time. Experiences, especially after reflections on these episodes, change the content of these self-concepts. Furthermore, each fragment of content is assigned a value, ranging from positive to negative. According to this model, whenever changes to the content undermine the self-esteem, self-efficacy, sense of continuity, or distinctiveness of people, they experience a sense of threat. In response, a range of strategies is invoked to withstand this stress. These strategies can be divided into two clusters: deflecting and accepting. Deflection includes denial of this threat, a reconstruction of the implications or meaning of this threat, or confronting the source of this threat. Acceptance entails fundamental changes to the self-concept. This theory entails several other models. For example, a threat to freedom, assumed to evoke a sense of reactance, could be regarded as merely a threat to self-efficacy.

Murtagh, Gatersleben, and Uzzell (2012) conducted a study to show that identity threats provoke resistance to change. In this study, participants were parents who drove. Their identity as either a parent or motorist was primed. The participants read eight vignettes about travel. Four of the vignettes threatened the primed identity. For example, if their role as parents were primed, participants read a vignette about how children who are driven to school do not perform as well. Four of the vignettes were not threatening. In addition, for half the vignettes, an authority wanted to institute a change--a feature that tends to exacerbate reactance. After reading each vignette, participants reported the degree to which they intend to shift their behavior, such as walk their child to school, the degree to which they feel the vignette undermines their self-esteem, self-efficacy, sense of continuity, and distinctiveness, as well as feelings of reactance (e.g., "it threatens my freedom"), and other control variables.

When individuals felt threatened, resistance to change was more pronounced. Identity threat and reactance could not be distinguished empirically, however.

Self-completion theory versus self-affirmation theory

According to self-completion theory, when individuals feel their identity is threatened--when their definition of themselves is challenged--they seek opportunities to reinforce this identity. They may strive harder on activities that epitomize this identity. They might purchase nameplates or other objects that symbolize this identity, and so forth.

Self-completion theory, therefore, diverges from self-affirmation theory. In particular, according to self-completion theory, when individuals receive feedback that threatens their identity, they seek opportunities to reinforce this specific facet of themselves. In contrast, according to self-affirmation theory, in response to threats, individuals will seek opportunities to reinforce any facet of themselves.

Gollwitzer, Marquardt, Scherer, and Fujita (2013) attempted to reconcile these possibilities. According to these researchers, if individuals experience a threat to a key facet of their identity, they should attempt to reinforce this identity. In contrast, if individuals experience a threat to their self-worth that, however, is not central to their identity, they will embrace any opportunity to enhance their self-worth.

Specifically, in this study, participants were law students. These students were either very committed to law or not especially committed to law. All the participants then completed a test and were informed they are deficient either on a skill that is vital to law or on a skill that is not vital to law: social competence. Finally, all participants were granted an opportunity either to claim they are similar to a typical lawyer--intended to reinforce this identity--or to express their values--intended to reinforce self-worth in general. Consistent with the hypotheses, individuals choose to reinforce their identity as a lawyer, rather than express their values, only if they were committed to law and this identity had been threatened.


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