Values Affirmation Is Powerful

One of the most startlingly effective things I’ve seen in the psychology literature is the power of “self-affirmation.”

The name is a bit misleading. The “self-affirmation” described in these studies isn’t looking in the mirror and telling yourself you’re beautiful.  It’s actually values affirmation — writing short essays about what’s important to you in life (things like “family”, “religion”, “art”) and why you value them. The standard control intervention is writing about why a value that’s not very important to you might be important to someone else.

Values affirmation has been found in many studies to significantly improve academic performance in “negatively stereotyped” groups (blacks, Hispanics, and women in STEM), and these effects are long-lasting, continuing up to a year after the last exercise.[1]  Values affirmation causes about a 40% reduction in the black-white GPA gap, concentrated in the middle- and low-performing students.[4]

Values affirmation exercises reduce the cortisol response (cortisol is a “stress hormone”) in response to social stress tasks, as well as reducing self-reported stress.[2]  Students assigned to a values-affirmation exercise did not have an increase in urinary epinephrine and norepinephrine (measures of sympathetic nervous system activity) in the weeks before an exam, while control students did.[5]  People who have just done a self-affirmation exercise have less of an increase in heart rate in response to being insulted.[6]

A fifteen-minute values affirmation exercise continued to reduce (questionnaire-measured) relationship insecurity for four weeks after the initial exercise.[3]

The striking phenomenon is that a very short, seemingly minor intervention (spending 15 minutes on a writing task) seems to have quite long-lasting and dramatic effects.

There are lots and lots of studies pointing in this direction, and I haven’t looked in great depth into how sound their methodology is; I still consider it quite possible that this is a statistical fluke or result of publication bias.  But it does seem to mesh well with a lot of ideas I’ve been considering over the years.

There is a kind of personal quality that has to do with believing you are fit to make value judgments.  Believing that you are free to decide your own priorities in life; believing that you are generally competent to pursue your goals; believing that you are allowed to create a model of the world based on your own experiences and thoughts.

If you lack this quality, you will look to others to judge how worthy you are, and look to others to interpret the world for you, and you will generally be more anxious and more likely to unconsciously self-sabotage.

I think of this quality as being a free person or being sovereign.  The psychological literature will often characterize it as “self-esteem”, but in popular language “self-esteem” is overloaded with “thinking you’re awesome”, which is different.  Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and nobody is wonderful in every way.  Being sovereign doesn’t require you to think you’re perfect; it is the specific feeling that you are allowed to use your own mind.

What the self-affirmation literature seems to say is that this quality is incredibly important, and incredibly responsive to practice.

The stereotype threat literature in particular suggests that there is an enormous aggregate cost, in terms of damaged academic and work performance and probably health damage, due to the loss of a sense of sovereignty among people whom society stereotypes as inferior.

Put another way: being a “natural aristocrat”, in the sense of being a person who is confident in his right to think and decide and value, gives you superpowers. My intuition is that people become much, much smarter and more competent when they are “free.”

And if promoting psychological freedom is as easy as the self-affirmation literature suggests, then people interested in maximizing humanitarian benefit should be interested.  Human cognitive enhancement is a multiplier on whatever good you want to do, just as economic growth is; it increases the total amount of resources at your disposal.  Raising IQ seems to be hard, once you get past the low-hanging fruit like reducing lead exposure, but reducing stereotype threat seems to be much easier.  I have a lot of uncertainty about “what is the most useful thing one can do for humanity”, but making saner, freer people arguably deserves a spot on the list of possibilities.

[1]Sherman, David K., et al. “Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104.4 (2013): 591.

[2]Creswell, J. David, et al. “Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses.” Psychological Science 16.11 (2005): 846-851.

[3]Stinson, Danu Anthony, et al. “Rewriting the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Social Rejection Self-Affirmation Improves Relational Security and Social Behavior up to 2 Months Later.” Psychological science 22.9 (2011): 1145-1149.

[4]Cohen, Geoffrey L., et al. “Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention.” science 313.5791 (2006): 1307-1310.

[5]Sherman, David K., et al. “Psychological vulnerability and stress: the effects of self-affirmation on sympathetic nervous system responses to naturalistic stressors.” Health Psychology 28.5 (2009): 554.

[6]Tang, David, and Brandon J. Schmeichel. “Self-affirmation facilitates cardiovascular recovery following interpersonal evaluation.” Biological psychology 104 (2015): 108-115.


28 thoughts on “Values Affirmation Is Powerful

  1. You talk here about freedom and autonomy, but I’m not sure that’s (all of) what the research is actually pointing at. You can exist in a culture, in an environment, that endorses specific values. In every case of making a value judgement, you are making a specific value judgement. You may end up thinking that specific values are ok and endorsed (intuiting a specific case instead of the general case).

    I think this is the thing that social conservatives, religious conservatives of all stripes, and others end up trying to do, endorse SOME set of values to get people to feel empowered and successful performing them. They want people to feel secure in, for example, going to college, getting a job, getting married, having kids, etc. Most groups end up pushing people to adopt the “correct” set of values, and very few actually want people to endorse whatever values they choose, that leads to chaos!

    • So, it’s a good point that values absorbed from one’s community definitely count. If you ask someone what their values are, and they say “Family and God”, that’s going to make them do better on tests and feel less anxious and so on. I think the relevant factor here is *affirming* those values as *important to you*. Note that the control intervention, which doesn’t work, is writing about what other people care about. You have to actively claim your community’s values as your own.

      But you’re right — I was putting a libertarian spin on the issue when you could put a conservative spin on the same data.

  2. “Values affirmation” exercises sound dreadful to me. I’m not sure what’s really important to me, and am insecure about this fact (sometimes I worry that nothing is). Any answer I give will necessarily be indefensible and open to attack, with no upside for a “right answer”. It’s very hard to believe that doing such an exercise immediately prior to a class or assessment wouldn’t hurt my performance, and memories of being asked similar things are still sometimes uncomfortable for me years later. When I’ve read about such exercises closing the achievement gap with various underperforming groups in studies, I have wondered about how much of that effect was from hurting the performance of people like me (a member of overperforming demographic groups on most axes). (The answer seems to be not much, though e.g. the right half of Figure 1 from your fourth citation does show very slight decreases among students already near the top.)

    I am absolutely not qualified to judge myself; this seems well-supported by the research on “outside view”/planning fallacy and other heuristics and biases, but is internally clear to me anyway given the tendency of my internal judgements to bounce between “you’re worthless and have never accomplished anything” and “it’s all good, feel free to take a break and read twitter all day just like you did yesterday”. External judgements are much more stable and reliable. And as with expressing values, recording self-judgements makes me vulnerable no matter what I say, with little upside. On the other hand, I often feel qualified to judge other people and ideas, since this avoids a lot of internal biases and feedback loops and entails less vulnerability. But if it’s just about “feeling sovereign” and able to make judgements generally, then why does the control exercise of judging and writing about someone else’s values not have the same positive effect?

  3. Reblogged this on YBoris and commented:
    Values affirmation has been found in many studies to significantly improve academic performance in “negatively stereotyped” groups (blacks, Hispanics, and women in STEM), and these effects are long-lasting, continuing up to a year after the last exercise.[1] Values affirmation causes about a 40% reduction in the black-white GPA gap, concentrated in the middle- and low-performing students.[4]

  4. 1. Your suggestion that value affirmation is related to sovereignty seemed plausible, but it was very jarring when you connected sovereignty to stereotype threat. The stereotype threat interventions I have heard about seem to me completely unrelated.

    2. There are tons of 30 minute interventions with studies claiming to affect academic performance a year later. Before you ask: should I believe this study, you should ask: why am I looking at this intervention, rather than all those others? Probably you should instead be trying to synthesize a common thread, probably less specific than any particular intervention.

    3. I still consider it quite possible that this is a statistical fluke or result of publication bias.

    What proportion of unreplicable education experiments do you think are the result of: (1) publication bias; (2) hidden multiple comparisons; (3) (selectively corrected) programming error; (4) data entry error; (5) unblinding; (6) fabrication? Is the balance different in psychology? in medicine?

    • In terms of causal drivers of my beliefs: I found the self-affirmation task in the course of trying to find interventions to correct “rejection sensitivity” (a standard psychological term referring to people whose feelings are unusually hurt by social rejection). The self-affirmation task was the *only* intervention that I could find that was even claimed to reduce rejection sensitivity. On the other hand, I haven’t done a broad literature search looking for all the interventions that are claimed to improve academic performance (and I suspect that would take an extremely long time.)

      With regard to your second question: first of all, the self-affirmation experiments aren’t *unreplicable*, there are lots of similar studies giving similar results. I don’t actually know enough people writing education/psych/medicine studies to have a good idea of the failure modes; Carl Shulman has done more on the prevalence of fraud in science.

  5. Anon257: What you say about the horns of your self-judgment I could have written almost word for word, and might have if I didn’t skew read-Twitter. The task radiates anxiety and I doubt I could take it up with sincerity.

    My only disagreements: 1) I seriously doubt the demographic effect is the result of hurting people like us (our reaction is quite far from the norm), and 2) I don’t think Sarah’s sovereignty is about the ability to make judgments generally, but rather the capacity to create lived judgments for oneself, so the point you raise doesn’t trouble her concept. Only if judging others were among your chief values should you expect the positive effect, and from your other remarks it’s clear you’d prefer to exercise your competence in other domains. All I can say is keep trying.

    Sarah: From what I remember Toqueville did expect America to become a power, but for the opposite reason: a democracy with a widespread initial conditions of practicality would produce the just universal shopkeeper-individual to best fuel a roaring economy undistracted by art or other non-commercial concerns. His sovereign was not the individual but the state; to quote a famous passage: “Thus after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; … it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

    Tocqueville may endorse your sovereign elsewhere, but Nietzsche did it everywhere and often to a wild (pathological?) extent; ironically for N ‘nobility’ just is “originator of lived values”, and its coincidence with aristocracy was a historical contingency. “261. Vanity is one of the things which are perhaps most difficult for a noble [read:sovereign] man to understand… The problem for him is to represent to his mind beings who seek to arouse a good opinion of themselves which they themselves do not possess–and consequently also do not “deserve,”–and yet who believe in this good opinion afterwards. This seems to him on the one hand such bad taste and so self-disrespectful, and on the other hand so grotesquely unreasonable, that he would like to consider vanity an exception, and is doubtful about it in most cases when it is spoken of. … The man of noble character must first bring it home forcibly to his mind, especially with the aid of history, that, from time immemorial, in all social strata in any way dependent, the ordinary man was only that which he passed for:–not being at all accustomed to fix values, he did not assign even to himself any other value than that which his master assigned to him (it is the peculiar right of masters to create values). It may be looked upon as the result of an extraordinary atavism, that the ordinary man, even at present, is still always waiting for an opinion about himself, and then instinctively submitting himself to it; yet by no means only to a “good” opinion, but also to a bad and unjust one… ”

    Btw, so glad to see you blogging again. I prefer the short form and this is among the very best posts I’ve read in years.


    • Nietzche is, of course, a major influence of my thinking.
      I could be wrong about de Toqueville; at some point I should see if I can find a representative quote or if I just misinterpreted the gist of what he was saying when I read the book years ago.
      I also haven’t done the values-affirmation task yet — when I first heard about it it sounded terrifying. It’s on my to-do list, thought.

  6. Um, okay, but what the exercise is actually *about*? Give us examples of those essays, or questionnaires that people had to fill to complete their essays, anything! “Something something about values/something about values that could be important to someone else” – that makes very little sense. I only got the part about 15 minutes.

  7. “I don’t know how to DO a values affirmation exercise.”
    “Just write about what you value.”
    “I don’t know WHAT I value.”
    “You don’t value anything?”
    “I value bank. But I think that misses the point of the exercise.”

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