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Self validation hypothesis

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Not surprisingly, the self esteem of individuals tends to improve after they transcribe three of their strengths and achievements on a piece of paper. Intriguingly, however, this exercise is more inclined to be effective if individuals transcribe these strengths with their preferred hand and nod their head during the process (Brinol & Petty, 2003).

This finding, and many other observations, can be ascribed to the self validation hypothesis. In particular, according to this theory, individuals often entertain a variety of transient thoughts, such as "This argument is convincing" or "I am likeable". Obviously, only the thoughts that seem valid rather than tenuous will affect the attitudes, and ultimately the behavior, of these individuals. Several cues or movements--nodding the head, memories of confidence, and so forth-tend to validate these thoughts, increasing the likelihood that perhaps they will shape attitudes (Brinol, Petty, & Tormala, 2004; Petty, Brinol, & Tormala, 2002).

The self validation hypothesis explains a variety of observations. For example, individuals are obviously more inclined to change their attitudes towards some policy after they are exposed to solid, rather than tenuous, arguments to support this proposal. More importantly, the solid arguments are especially likely to shape the attitudes of individuals if, a few minutes earlier, they had been instructed to recall occasions in which they had succeeded on some task (Petty, Brinol, & Tormala, 2002). Recollections of success bestow a sense of confident, validating their favorable thoughts towards the policy.

Description of the theory

Thoughts do not always affect the attitudes of individuals. These individuals, for instance, might think that arguments in support of euthanasia are convincing, but nevertheless not change their attitudes towards this practice. Individuals might recognize they are competent on many tasks, but ultimately perceive themselves as unworthy.

According to Petty, Brinol, and Tormala (2002), only thoughts that individuals confidently perceive as valid, not invalid, will shape attitudes. The key feature of this theory is that many factors can affect the level of confidence in these thoughts. In particular, individuals are more inclined to feel confident in their thoughts-and hence these thoughts are more likely to affect attitudes-if they nod their head (Brinol & Petty, 2003), transcribe their thoughts with their preferred hand (Brinol & Petty, 2003), experience happiness(Brinol, Petty, & Barden, 2007), or recall instances in which they accomplished some goal (Petty, Brinol, & Tormala, 2002).

Empirical evidence

Several studies have corroborated the self validation hypothesis. In many of these studies, participants receive either solid or tenuous arguments that putatively support some proposal. A university, for example, might consider introducing a policy in which students must have access to their personal identification card whenever they enter the campus. Participants might be exposed to solid arguments-perhaps these cards might enable students to check their grades and access feedback securely through the internet-or tenuous arguments-perhaps these cards ensure that campus guards are not as busy, permitting more time for their lunch (Brinol, Petty, & Barden, 2007). After participants read these arguments, they engage in some other activity that is intended to affect their confidence in their thoughts-such as nodding or shaking their head, writing these arguments with their preferred or other hand, reminiscing about events in which they succeeded or failed on some task, or recalling either happy or sad episodes in the past. Finally, participants answer questions that characterize their attitudes towards the proposal.

Solid arguments, of course, are more inclined to persuade participants than are tenuous arguments. Nevertheless, as many studies show, these solid arguments are not as likely to sway the attitudes of participants who had shaken their head (Brinol & Petty, 2003), reflected upon an occasion in which they failed to achieve a goal (Petty, Brinol, &Tormala, 2002), feel the source of information is not credible (Tormala, Brinol, & Petty, 2006), or recalled a sad episode in their lives (Brinol, Petty, & Barden, 2007). All of these findings indicate that any cues that reflect doubt diminish the likelihood that thoughts will impinge on attitudes.

Thought confidence is especially likely to affect attitudes when individuals think carefully about these issues (Petty, Brinol, Tormala,& Wegener, 2007). That is, a variety of theories, such as the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979) or the heuristic-systematic model (Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989) propose that individuals either can reflect upon issues carefully, systematically, and analytically or can consider the topic superficially, rapidly, and intuitively, relying on simple cues and heuristics. When individuals consider the issues carefully, systematically, and analytically, their final attitude is especially dependent on the thoughts they entertain--not the preconceptions they have formed or the emotions they experience-and hence confidence in these thoughts is paramount. Consistent with this proposition, thought confidence is more inclined to determine attitudes when participants report a need for cognition, which refers to a propensity to consider issues carefully, methodically, and analytically (Brinol, Petty, & Barden, 2007).

Practical implications


Sometimes, you feel that individuals do not support your opinion but have not entirely discounted your position either. They might, for example, seem to favour a competitor but nevertheless might not have reached a definitive decision. Alternatively, they might not seem compelled by your arguments, but are continuing to listen to your perspective.

In these instances, you should attempt to challenge their sense of confidence. First, you could highlight your surprise with their opinion and suggest their position is uncommon, with statements such as "Most people I have spoken to have a very different opinion." Second, you could encourage these individuals to recall instances in which their judgment was flawed, with statements such as "Have you ever felt that a proposal was convincing but later discovered the initiative was flawed?" Third, you could present an upsetting story-perhaps an anecdote that inspired your interest in this issue. You might portray a tale in which a person experienced depression, and could not continue to work, because they had not received appropriate assistance, piquing your interest in this industry.

In contrast, sometimes you feel that individuals tentatively support your position or opinion. They might, for instance, favor your product but nevertheless have yet to discount a rival offer. In these instances, you should attempt to enhance their sense of confidence. That is, suggest their opinion is very common, with statements such as "Most people I have spoken to have a similar view."

Self esteem

To enhance self esteem, individuals should be asked to write on a piece of paper any two insights they have acquired, skills they have developed, or goals they have achieved during the last few days. Perhaps they have learnt to negotiate more effectively or operate some software. They should use their preferred hand and nod their head up and down - at a comfortable rate - during this process. Second, each month, these individuals should also write two strengths they are not certain they demonstrate or two qualities they are not certain they have acquired. Perhaps they feel they are uncreative or unpopular. They should not use their preferred hand, but should shake their head from side to side, during this process.

Confidence and certainty

Similar to self esteem, the self validation hypothesis can also be applied to enhance confidence and certainty (see Wichman, Brinol, Petty, Rucker, & Tormala, 2010). To clarify, in some instances, individuals experience a profound sense of uncertainty or doubt. They might not, for example, feel they understand the causes of adversities in their lives, called chronic causal uncertainty.

Self validation theory can be applied to challenge this doubt and, ultimately, instill certainty. That is, after individuals enact behavior that usually invalidate their thoughts--such as shaking their head or reading words that prime uncertainty--their original doubts actually subside. A sense of confidence unfolds instead.

This possibility as confirmed by Wichman, Brinol, Petty, Rucker, and Tormala (2010). In one of their studies, the extent to which individuals often experience a sense of uncertainty was assessed, with questions like "When bad things happen, I do not know why". Next, participants completed a sentence unscrambling task. To invalidate the thoughts of some participants, these sentences included words like uncertain or doubt. To validate the thoughts of other participants, the sentences did not include these words.

Finally, participants completed a measure that assesses the extent to which they feel certain about other conclusions. In particular, the possible causes of various events, like a raise, were listed. Participants specified the degree to which they felt each cause were relevant to these events. Next, they indicated the extent to which they were certain of these responses.

If participants usually experience a sense of uncertainty, they also tended to be uncertain of their responses on the final task. Nevertheless, this effect of trait uncertainty diminished if participants had been exposed to words like doubt. These words invalidated their thoughts and thus actually reversed their uncertainty. A subsequent study generated similar results when participants were encouraged to shake rather than nod their head to invalidate thoughts.

Problems with positive thinking

Individuals are often encouraged to focus on positive thoughts-their skills, their achievements, and their strengths-to override feelings of dejection or depression. They are invited to think positively, not dwell of their problems. Unfortunately, when individuals feel upset, gloomy, or depressed, these positive thoughts are unlikely to enhance their confidence and enthusiasm. Indeed, in this mood, positive thoughts will, somewhat surprisingly, often damage their confidence.

In particular, when individuals feel upset, rather than happy, they inadvertently deem their thoughts to be tenuous, not valid (Brinol, Petty, & Barden, 2007). Thoughts such as "I am likeable" or "I can do anything" are, somewhat unconsciously perhaps, perceived as shaky, ultimately curbing the confidence of individuals.


Brinol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2003). Overt head movements and persuasion: A self-validation analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1123-1139.

Brinol, P., Petty, R. E., & Barden, J. (2007). Happiness versus sadness as a determinant of thought confidence in persuasion: A self-validation analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,93, 711-727.

Brinol, P., Petty, R. E., & Tormala, Z. L. (2004). Self-validation of cognitive responses to advertisements. Journal of Consumer Research,30, 559-573.

Chaiken, S., Liberman, A., & Eagly, A. H. (1989). Heuristic and systematic processing within and beyond the persuasion context. In J.S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought (pp. 212-252).New York: Guilford Press.

Petty, R. E., Brinol, P., & Tormala, Z. L. (2002). Thought confidence as a determinant of persuasion: The self-validation hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 722-741.

Petty, R. E., Brinol, P., Tormala, Z. L., & Wegener, D. T. (2007).The role of meta-cognition in social judgment. In E. T. Higgins &A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: A handbook of basic principles (2nd ed., pp. 254-284). New York: Guilford Press.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1979). Issue involvement can increase or decrease persuasion by enhancing message-relevant cognitive responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1915-1926.

Tormala, Z. L., Brinol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2006). When credibility attacks: The reverse impact of source credibility on persuasion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 684-691.

Wichman, A. L., Brinol, P., Petty, R. E., Rucker, D. D., & Tormala, Z. L. (2010). Doubting one's doubt: A formula for confidence? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 350-355.

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Last Update: 6/13/2016