At a first glance, the findings from the following neuroscience study seem counterintuitive. Does giving yourself a pat on the back help you notice your mistakes? Wouldn’t it make you more complacent? But it turns out that self-affirmation, as it’s defined in this study and others, amounts to more than telling yourself that you’re awesome. It’s about reminding yourself of who you are, what you most believe in and identify with.
Let’s have a look at the study.
38 undergraduates were asked to rank six different kinds of values (religious, social, etc.) by order of personal importance. The undergraduates who were randomly assigned to the ‘self-affirmation group’ were then asked to write why their most highly ranked value is important to them; those in the ‘non-affirmation group’ were asked to write why their most highly ranked value isn’t important to them. This request sets up the non-affirmation group to undermine themselves to some extent and betray what they feel is important to them.
After the writing exercise, subjects from both groups were run through a task that commonly measures executive functioning: the “go/no go” task.
… they were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on a screen; when the letter W (the “no-go” stimulus) appeared, they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button. To increase the sense of threat in the task, participants were given negative feedback (“Wrong!”) when they made a mistake.
During this task researchers recorded their brain activity with EEG. In the self-affirmation group (which performed better on the task than the non-affirmation group), subjects’ brain activity showed a stronger response to errors. Self-affirmation seemed to be associated with increased processing of errors.
People often get defensive about messing up; they hate having their mistakes pointed out to them and often prefer to live in blindness to their own errors. I think the tendency to get defensive is stronger in people who have a more incomplete or damaged sense of self; in that case they’d find the error especially threatening and would process it less deeply in order to protect themselves. Maybe in people who feel more steady, strong, and committed to who they are and what they believe in, an error isn’t such a threat to their sense of self and can be processed more deeply?
It’s also possible that the non-affirmation group was a bit discombobulated after having to write about why their most important belief really isn’t that important; it’s a strange request to make of someone, and the subjects might have thought that something was weird in the experiment and didn’t attend as much as they should have to the go/no-go task, or tried to figure out if there was something more complex going on than pressing buttons for the letter M vs. W. (Years ago in college when running a cognitive psych experiment I had a couple of subjects who seemed unusually tense and alert during the task, which involved naming pictures they saw on a computer screen. Afterwards they told me they kept waiting for a catch – that the task was too simple and that there must be some kind of trick. What the trick was, they weren’t sure, but they had tried to figure it out. Their reaction times were slower than average as a result, and some of the names they came up with for the pictures were odd.)