man, standing, qualities, Self-affirmation theory

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When people encounter new concepts that challenge their existing beliefs or values, they may react negatively by dismissing, avoiding, or counter-arguing the information. Here are some theoretical examples:

  • A person who strongly identifies as a vegetarian may feel threatened by a new concept that suggests some animal products are beneficial for health. They may react negatively by ignoring the evidence, finding flaws in the source, or reaffirming their moral reasons for being vegetarian.
  • A person who is proud of their academic achievements may feel threatened by a new concept that suggests intelligence is not fixed but malleable. They may react negatively by rejecting the idea, attributing their success to innate ability, or affirming their other positive traits.

Self-affirmation theory suggests that once an individuals’ defensiveness to an idea has been triggered, then the resources required to allow that new idea to become accepted are increased, in effect, the individual will “dig-in” to their existing concepts and tend to reject out of hand any repetition of the new concept. It suggests that to avoid this negative behaviour, individuals need to be reminded of information that they already know, which in effect opens the door to this new information being accepted and integrated into that individuals’ accepted values and understandings. Here are some theoretical examples of how people may react to new concepts based on self-affirmation theory:

A person who values their health may be more open to learning about the benefits of a plant-based diet if they first reflect on how their dietary choices reflect their personal values and goals.

A person who values their intelligence may be more willing to accept feedback on their academic performance if they first recall a time when they demonstrated their intellectual abilities or achievements.

A person who values their creativity may be more receptive to new ideas or perspectives if they first express their own creative thoughts or opinions on a topic.

The implications of self-affirmation theory

In the health domain, self-affirmation can help people overcome defensive reactions to health messages and adopt healthier behaviours. For example, research has shown that self-affirming before receiving information about the risks of smoking can reduce smokers’ resistance to the message and increase their intentions to quit. Similarly, self-affirming before receiving feedback on physical activity can enhance people’s motivation to exercise more.

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In the education domain, self-affirmation can help students cope with academic stress and improve their performance and well-being. For example, research has shown that self-affirming before taking a test can reduce test anxiety and boost test scores. Moreover, self-affirming can buffer students from the negative effects of stereotype threat, which is the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. By affirming their values, students can protect their self-esteem and academic identity from being undermined by stereotypes.

In the social justice domain, self-affirmation can help people reduce prejudice and discrimination and promote social change. For example, research has shown that self-affirming can reduce people’s bias against out-group members and increase their willingness to support policies that benefit marginalized groups. Furthermore, self-affirming can empower people who face oppression or injustice to resist and challenge the status quo. By affirming their values, people can enhance their sense of agency and collective identity and mobilize for social action.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about self-affirmation theory, a psychological theory that focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their self-concept, you may find the following weblinks useful:

Self-affirmation – Wikipedia: This is a comprehensive overview of the theory, its main principles, its applications, and its criticisms. It also provides references to original and recent research papers on self-affirmation theory.

Self-Affirmation Theory in Social Psychology – iResearchNet: This is a concise summary of the theory, its background and history, its empirical support, and its implications for various domains such as health, education, and intergroup relations. It also offers some suggestions for future research directions on self-affirmation theory.

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