Last updated on 22nd July 2016
Writing (or speaking) about our values or areas of our lives that are of particular personal importance can help us feel less threatened by stresses and more able to see situations clearly. There are many research studies demonstrating this. For example writing about personal values has been shown to reduce both subjectively experienced psychological stress and the body's adrenaline response to taking an academic exam (Sherman, Bunyan et al. 2009). This easing in sense of threat tends to boost the exam results people achieve, especially for those who tend to get more stressed (Cohen, Garcia et al. 2006). Other research has shown values affirmation decreases the body's cortisol response to the challenge of giving a speech (Creswell, Welch et al. 2005). These reductions in psychological and biochemical responses to threat have the potential to be important in disease processes - writing about personally important life domains can decrease physical symptoms and doctor visits in people with cancer (Creswell, Lam et al. 2007). Self-affirmation theory (Sherman and Cohen 2006) suggests that the many researched benefits of affirming personally important values or life domains come from supporting people's sense of self-integrity or self-worth. For more on this see the post I wrote last year on self-affirmation.
Recent research however shows that, quite often, these values/domains affirmations act not so much by boosting self-worth as by boosting self-transcendence (Crocker, Niiya et al. 2008). Jennifer Crocker & colleagues write "We suggest that values-affirmation manipulations remind participants of people or things beyond themselves that they care about and that are more important than temporary feelings of self-threat; rather than affirming the self, values affirmation enables people to transcend the self. The strong effects of values affirmation on love raise the possibility that values-affirmation manipulations affect hormones related to caregiving, such as oxytocin. Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases trust and down-regulates stress-related cortisol responses ... Down-regulation of the fight-or-flight response affords people the ability to protect others from threats". There's some evidence that affirmation to boost self-esteem works best when done "covertly" by someone else rather than "overtly" by oneself (Sherman, Cohen et al. 2009). This however may not be true for affirmation used to boost self-transcendence, where deliberately reminding oneself about the personal importance of other-directed values may well be helpful (Fredrickson, Cohn et al. 2008).
One of the most straightforward and frequently studied ways of connecting to values is by writing about them. Different researchers have used somewhat different instructions, but a typical request would be to choose a particularly important personal value or life area from a list. An example would be the 11 items on the "Sources of validation scale": artistic skills/aesthetic appreciation; sense of humour; relations with friends/family; spontaneity/living life in the moment; social skills; athletics; musical ability/appreciation; physical attractiveness; creativity; business/managerial skills; romantic values (Cohen, Aronson et al. 2000). More broadly still, Sherman and Cohen have written (p.187) "The self is composed of different domains, which include an individual's roles, such as being a student or a parent; values, such as being religious or having a sense of humor; social identities, such as membership in groups or organizations and in racial, cultural, and gender groups; and belief systems, such as political ideologies. The self is also composed of people's goals, such as the value of being healthy or succeeding in school. The self‐system is activated when a person experiences a threat to an important self‐conception or image. Such threat poses a challenge to a desired self‐conception. Thus, failure feedback could threaten a person's identity as a student, negative health information could threaten a person's self conception as a healthful individual, news about anti-American sentiment could threaten a person's patriotic identity, and evidence of social inequality could challenge a person's belief in a just world. All of these events are threatening because they have implications for a person's overall sense of self-integrity". So the implication here is that one could helpfully write about personally important roles, values, social identities, belief systems, or goals. It seems most helpful and protective to write (or speak) about the importance of an area that is different from the one "under threat".
In my own work, I tend to suggest people write about a top personal value/characteristic/quality that has emerged from their completion of the "Respected figures" exercise or a key role/life area described in the "Funeral speeches" or "80th birthday party" exercises. This often fits well with the probability that deliberate "self-help" use of affirmation exercises is more effective in boosting self-transcendence rather than just self-esteem. Happily this is likely to produce benefits for everyone involved, both for others and for oneself (Crocker, Moeller et al. 2010).
See tomorrow's post for more how-to-do-it details.