Jul 03 2009

The Skeptics’ Daily Affirmation

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Avoid daily affirmations.

One of my favorite SNL skits was Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley, played by Minnesota’s new junior senator.  The humor of the skit, as is often the case, was in the fact that it was just a slight exaggeration of reality.

Smalley was a self-help guru whose schtick was the daily affirmation – psychotherapy through simple-minded positive self statements. His catch phrase was, “Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!”He was a caricature of every insipid simple-minded pop psychologist peddling easy answers to people with problems for the entertainment of others.

Smalley was also an indictment of the self-help industry, which is all about substituting easy gimicks for real problem solving.  For a good overview, listen to our interview with Steve Salerno, author of SHAM – How the self-help movement made America helpless.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman’s latest book, 59 Seconds, also contains a harsh criticism of the self-help industry, focusing on the fact that it is not evidence-based. Mainly, self-help gurus just make stuff up. Meanwhile, there is a vast literature of psychological research that contains actually useful information that offers practical knowledge. For example, telling children that they have done a good job turns out to be a bad idea. This just makes them anxious about their future performance and fearful of failure. However, if you praise them for working hard they will encourage them to work hard the next time – because they have absolute control over how hard they work, but not the final outcome. This is one of those notions that seems counter-intuitive at first, but them makes complete sense once it is explained.

The same, it turns out, is true of daily affirmations. A recent study published in Psychological Science finds that for people with low self esteem saying positive self-affirmations actually lowered their self-esteem. For people with high self-esteem at baseline, affirmations has only a slightly positive effect.  Seem counter-intuitive at first, but researchers Wood, Lee, and Perunovic believe that for people with low self-esteem the self-affirmation just makes them consider how untrue the contrived statement is, lowering their self-esteem.

They liken this to excessive praise. If a parent tells a child that that they are the most wonderful child in the world, they are likely to just role their eyes. Unrealistic praise is not as effective as more targeted and realistic praise.

Other research shows that self-affirmation can be counterproductive in that it encourages confirmation bias in dismissing negative information about ourselves – information threatening to our self-esteem. In other words, people recently exposed to affirming statements were more likely to rationalize away information that potentially had negative implications for their self-esteem.  The authors conclude: “By ameliorating the threat, self-affirmations can elicit less effective reasoning strategies.”

Of course, the story about self-affirmation is much more complicated than I have covered so far, and the information is not all bad. There is evidence that affirming statements may promote good behaviors, like more healthy eating habits.  Self-affirmation also seems to make people less defensive and more open to health information, such as the dangers of smoking. However, at the same time (except for the study on eating above) most of the evidence shows that there is no positive effect on actual behavior.

Other affirmation may make people more open to compromise. This one makes sense – if you butter people up (but don’t overdo it) they will be less defensive and more open to negotiation.

Like most psychological questions, the effects of self-affirmation are complex and not completely understood. It seems that they have a negative effect on people with low self-esteem. For people with average to high self-esteem, there is a slightly positive effect which can make people less defensive and more open, but also more likely to use confirmation bias to dismiss esteem-threatening information. And, the effects of self-affirmation on actual behavior seems debatable.

But don’t confuse self-help gurus with the facts. It’s difficult to market complexity and uncertainty, so the self-help industry takes the Stuart Smalley approach.

I prefer the evidence-based approach, and the interesting thing is that there is a wealth of useful evidence in the psychological literature. The problem is that there is a disconnect between this information and the public, and the self-help industry is filling the gulf with misinformation. That is why I applaud the efforts of Richard Wiseman and others to connect actual research evidence to the public in easy-to-digest nuggets.

This is generally the goal of the skeptical movement – to connect the public with actual science rather than the “cheap imitation.”  And we are succeeding – because we are good enough, we are smart enough, and doggonit people like us.

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