How Self-Affirmation Exercises Help Test Performance

By Hilda Scott , May 02, 2013 11:45 AM EDT

Self-affirmation can help us to lower anxiety, stress and preserve our self-worth. New research explains how self affirmation helps us cope when our self-integrity is threatened.

Researchers randomly assigned 38 undergraduate students to give themselves a self-affirmation at the beginning of the study, while others were asked not to. Participants were asked to rank six values in order of importance. Researchers asked the participants to rank aesthetic, social, political, religious, economical and theoretical values from most important to least important.

The participants assigned to the self-affirmation condition were given five minutes to write about why their highest-ranked value was important to them. Within the non-affirmation condition, the participants were asked to write about why their highest-ranked of the six values was not important to them.

"Although we know that self-affirmation reduces threat and improves performance, we know very little about why this happens. And we know almost nothing about the neural correlates of this effect," lead researcher Lisa Legault, of Clarkson University, said in a press release.

After the value-ranking session, all participants performed self-control tests called the "go/no-go" task. They were asked to press a button when the letter M appeared on the screen, which was designated as the "go" stimulus. When the letter W appeared, which was assigned as the "no-go" stimulus, they were asked to refrain from pressing the button. When they made a mistake, the participants were given negative feedback, hearing "Wrong," which increases the threat of the task. The brain activities of the participants were recorded using electroencephalography (EEG).

Researchers found that performance on the go/no-go test was improved with self-affirmation. The self-affirmation group made fewer errors in pressing the button when they should not have, compared to the non-affirmation group. It was also found that the self-affirmation group had higher error-related negativity (ERN) when they made a mistake during the test. The enhanced ERN among the self-affirmation group made them more receptive to errors, making them more capable of correcting their mistakes.

"These findings are important because they suggest one of the first ways in which the brain mediates the effects of self-affirmation. Practitioners who are interested in using self-affirmation as an intervention tactic in academic and social programming might be interested to know that the strategy produces measurable neurophysiological effects," Legault said. Findings from the study were published in Psychological Science. 

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