From a psychological perspective, there are main three reasons why self-affirmation is so powerful: first, it’s simply beneficial to consider and reinforce the things we value; second, when we are experiencing criticism of negative thoughts, the technique helps us refocus on the positive on our life; third, by having a more clear and objective view on our self-worth we can more easily regulate our emotions.
A recent brain-imaging study published in “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience” has revealed what’s really happening in the brain when people practice self-affirmation. Apparently the discoveries are finally confirming the techniques efficiency. Psychologists such Christopher Cascio and his colleagues with University of Pennsylvania have studied the success of affirmation with the help of brain imaging and this is what they discovered.
The researchers sought for neural evidence to back up the these three hypotheses and found out that participants in the self-affirmation condition exhibited greater activation in parts of the brain that are known to be involved in expecting and receiving reward (the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex) than did those in the control group. Also, when thinking about what they most valued in a future context (e.g., “Think about a time in the future when you will have fun with family and friends”), but not in a past context, the self-affirmation group showed more activity in areas associated with thinking about the self (the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex).
Self-affirmation was associated with more self-focused brain activity only when contemplating future scenarios. This speaks to the most exciting aspect of this research: namely, whether taking a brain-based approach to self-affirmation can provide any insight into how to enhance the way the technique is performed.
Cascio and his team emitted a theory that basically said that thinking about the future is associated with brain activity in the same neural regions that they later discovered to be involved in self-affirmation. Consequently, performing future-based self-affirmation can become highly effective. They predicted that, from a neural perspective, focusing on the future would reinforce the neural activation patterns that are associated with the self-affirmation technique.
In the self-affirmation group, activity in reward-related brain areas and in self-related brain areas was greater when the participants were given future-based self-affirmation prompts. Also, comparing the self-affirmation group with the control group, the extra brain activity seen in the former group was accentuated when the participants were engaged in future-based self-affirmation.
Finally, and most important, the researchers found that the success of the self-affirmation was specifically correlated with levels of brain activity seen during future-oriented thinking. They know this because they looked to see how their participants (all of whom were sedentary and overweight) responded to health messages such as “People who sit less are at lower risk for certain diseases.”
People can sometimes respond negatively to messages like they make them feel bad about themselves. But self-affirmation can prevent this, researchers think, because it reminds people that their self-worth has a broad foundation, and so the message about weight and lifestyle comes across as less threatening. This makes it easier to be receptive to the message and respond constructively, which is precisely what happened in this study.
The researchers discovered that the participants in the self-affirmation condition responded better than control participants to the health messages, becoming more active in the following month after the study, as measured by accelerometers they wore on their wrists. What’s more, it was specifically activity levels in the reward-related and self-related areas of these participants’ brains during future-oriented (but not past-oriented) self-affirmation that correlated with their being more active in the month after the health messages, which totally agrees with the researchers brain-based hypothesis.