Science of Self-Affirmation

SELF-AFFIRMATIONS are intentional, positive expressions directed towards oneself that disrupt negative thinking.  They focus on emphasizing one’s most important values. In the world of alternative therapies, they have been considered to be extremely beneficial for boosting psychological well-being, stress relief, mental health, and life satisfaction. The concept is that it doesn’t only matter how we exist in reality -- how successful, healthy, physically attractive, or wealthy we actually are, it matters how we perceive ourselves in our mind’s eye. Our perception is incredibly important to the ways in which we actually experience ourselves on a daily basis.  

One study, led by Doctoral Candidate Christopher Cascio and Associate Professor Emily Falk and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to find that self-affirmation activates well-known reward centers in the brain.  These areas - the Ventral Striatum (VS) and Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (VMPFC) - are also responsible for feeling pleasure in other areas of life, like when you eat your favorite foods or achieve a certain goal.  These circuits are scientifically shown to dampen and reduce pain response as well as maintain balance and strength in the face of physical and psychological threats.

It also increases activity in the medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC) and Posterior Cingulate (PCC), which are areas of the brain connected to self-related processing. Self-related processing strengthens our resiliency to negative, painful, or threatening information that follows.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University suggest that self-affirmation can also enhance problem solving activity under pressure and stressful conditions. David Creswell’s research indicates that "An emerging set of published studies suggest that a brief self-affirmation activity at the beginning of a school term can boost academic grade-point averages in underperforming kids at the end of the semester," said Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.    

Dr. Branch Coslett from the University of Pennsylvania refers to studies from the Netherlands where scientists studied the behaviors of anorexic women.  They found that these behaviors exhibited that the women’s “internal representation” of themselves was much bigger than they were in physical reality. Our internal representation of ourselves in different contexts has a big impact on our psychological states of being. Coslett believes that positive self-affirmations can change our perception of ourselves positively.

The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that self-affirmation enables a person to perceive situations more objectively, which puts things into proper perspective and reduces defensiveness and aggression.  The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also suggests that self-affirmation leads to the cessation of rumination, where people stop ruminating about a frustrated goal when they can affirm an important aspect of the self.