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Berlin weekend: self-affirmation theory

All day Friday and all day Saturday exploring Berlin.  Then on Saturday evening we went to a reasonable restaurant and this morning - Sunday - I woke with what seems to be a pretty good dose of food poisoning.  Humph.  Well it's been a peaceful day for me with my system gradually recovering.  Dear Catero has had a tourist time on her own, popping in now and again to see how I'm doing.  Gradually and steadily getting better is the answer.  By late morning I was up for reading again.  The book I have with me isn't as appealing as I'd hoped (rather jaundiced "realism"), so I've been enjoying looking at some research papers on self-affirmation!  Sad or what?! 

David Sherman's website at University of California, Santa Barbara, gives a good introduction to the field.  He provides links to ten or so full text PDF's.  One of the most helpful is the 2006 overview by Sherman & Cohen "The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory" where they explain "Steele (1988) first proposed the theory of self-affirmation. It asserts that the overall goal of the self-system is to protect an image of its self-integrity, of its moral and adaptive adequacy. When this image of self-integrity is threatened, people respond in such a way as to restore self-worth. As noted previously, one way that this is accomplished is through defensive responses that directly reduce the threat. But another way is through the affirmation of alternative sources of self-integrity. Such ‘‘self-affirmations,'' by fulfilling the need to protect self-integrity in the face of threat, can enable people to deal with threatening events and information without resorting to defensive biases ... We illustrate how self-affirmation affects not only people's cognitive responses to threatening information and events, but also their physiological adaptations and actual behavior. The research presented has implications for psychological and physical health, education, social conflict, closemindedness and resistance to change, prejudice and discrimination, and a variety of other important applied areas."

Through the lens of evolutionary psychology, one can see how - in a highly social species like ours - presenting an "image" to the world that one is "resourceful, in control, and a good person" could have adaptive value (personal survival, alliances & mating opportunities).  One can even argue that presenting such an "image" is likely to be more convincing and hence even more adaptive if one believes in it oneself.  There is a large amount of research evidence supporting what Sherman & Cohen describe as the four basic tenets of self-affirmation theory:

  1. People are motivated to protect the perceived integrity and worth of the self.
  2. Motivations to protect self-integrity can result in defensive reponses.
  3. The self-system is flexible.
  4. People can be affirmed by engaging in activities that remind them of "who they are" (and doing so reduces the implications for self-integrity of threatening events).

So self-affirmation theory argues that we are highly committed to seeing ourselves in a positive light and, when this sense of "self-integrity" is threatened, we tend to indulge in a variety of conscious and unconscious cognitive and behavioural manoeuvers to protect  our self-view.  These manoeuvers can seriously distort what's actually going on and may contribute to various forms of prejudice and denial.  Self-affirmation of other valued aspects of ourselves can however maintain our sense of self-integrity without resorting to such self-protective distortions. 

There are all kinds of ways that self-affirmation research is relevant for stress and wellbeing.  Examples include important implications when presenting somebody with potentially "threatening" information (e.g. about health practices or mistakes).  They're less likely to become unhelpfully defensive - and more able to process the information accurately & rationally - if their sense of "self-integrity" has initially been strengthened by reminding them of their values and/or their resources in other areas of their lives.  The same, of course, applies to ourselves when facing confronting material.  In a parallel way, bolstering self-integrity by talking or writing about alternative personally important life areas (e.g. relationships, values, science/pursuit of truth, religion, etc) has been shown to help people face stressful circumstances more effectively (e.g. exams, job changes, health threats).  I intend to revisit this territory more fully in a future blog posting about therapeutic writing, as there are fascinating implications.


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