You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, And Doggone It, Self-Affirmation May Be A Terrible Idea

Daily affirmations are at the core of the entire self-improvement industry, but new research says this popular leadership-training technique might actually be counterproductive.

If you’ve attended a corporate retreat in the past 20 years, there is a very good chance that you did a few trust falls, drank too many cups of lukewarm coffee, and received a bit of coaching in the mysterious art of self-affirmation.

Self-affirmation gained notoriety in 1988, when Stanford psychologist Claude Steele published the first major academic research showing that the “integrity of the self...is restored, through explanation, rationalization, and/or action analyzes.” Steele was able to show that repeated reminders of personal competence had a measurable effect on self-esteem, cooperation, and productivity. By the end of the '80s, millions of Americans were starting their day with a self-affirming pep talk in the bathroom mirror. Today, the technique is used extensively throughout the multibillion dollar leadership-training industry.

After 20 years of supportive research, affirmation has become a mainstay of confidence-building exercises in a variety of settings. It’s a cornerstone of alcohol treatment programs and weight-loss programs, and it is a widely accepted method for combatting depression. The reputation of self-affirmation even survived a half-decade of weekly lampooning by Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live and the mad ravings of a very precocious little YouTube sensation in 2009, but research published in January by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers a new analysis on the technique, arguing that it actually degrades a person’s ability to cope with failure and follow through on personal goals.

To test this hypothesis, the study authors gave test subjects one of the most frustrating tasks imaginable. Each participant received a pair of chopsticks and instructions to move uncooked rice from one location to another, one grain at a time. They were given benchmarks and incentives to accomplish the goal, but not a single person was able to complete the impossibly difficult job in the time allotted.

Half of the participants went through self-affirmation before the experiment, writing down a list of values and responding to an intensive questionnaire about personal motivations. The un-affirmed group didn’t perform any better with the chopsticks, but they were 11% less likely to give up when asked to take the challenge again--a small but important reduction in follow-through.

Study coauthor Brandon Schmeichel was quick to point out that the research is not a critique of self-affirmation as a tool for setting goals, but the study does highlight a growing body of evidence showing that the technique can be misapplied to situations where a little bit of tunnel vision might be helpful. “It does seem that affirming techniques are effective for long-term planning,” said Schmeichel, “but there are plenty of times when people probably perform better when they don’t look at the big picture and just focus on the present.”

--Colin Weatherby is an editorial intern at [i]Fast Company. Find him on Twitter at @ccweatherby.[/i]

[Image: Flickr user Ken Douglas]

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2 Comments

  • Colin

    Dave, I think researchers would typically agree with you. My question--to which I haven't found a convincing answer--is whether it may lower the threshold for "impossible"?

  • Dave Nussbaum

    Obviously, some of these outcomes are open to interpretation, but personally I find it curious -- isn't giving up on an impossible challenge exactly the correct response that you'd want to see? I can see if the task is very hard, but possible, you may want to persist to complete it. But if it's impossible, you're wasting your time and energy -- it carries an opportunity cost. What we should be looking for are ways to get people to get unstuck, which seems to be exactly what the affirmation does.