Review of studies says you can decrease motivated cognition through self-affirmation

by Nick_Beckstead1 min read23rd Oct 20139 comments


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I read this article today and thought LW might find it interesting. The key finding is that in a number of different experiments, simple "self-affirmations" (such as writing about relationships with your friends or something else that makes you feel good about yourself) make people more open to changing their mind in cases where changing their mind would be damaging to their self-image. The proposed explanation is that people need to maintain a certain level of self-worth, and one way they do that is by refusing to accept evidence that would damage their sense of self-worth. But if they have a high enough sense of self-worth, they are less likely to do this. I haven't reviewed any of these studies personally, but the idea makes some sense and sounds pretty easy to try. Hat tip to Dan Keys for putting me onto the idea. I searched LW for "Sherman self-affirmation" and didn't see this discussed anywhere on LW, but I didn't look very hard.

Title: Accepting Threatening Information: Self–Affirmation and the Reduction of Defensive Biases

Authors: David K. Sherman and Geoffrey L. Cohen

Citation details: Current Directions in Psychological Science August 2002 vol. 11 no. 4 119-123

Abstract: Why do people resist evidence that challenges the validity of long–held beliefs? And why do they persist in maladaptive behavior even when persuasive information or personal experience recommends change? We argue that such defensive tendencies are driven, in large part, by a fundamental motivation to protect the perceived worth and integrity of the self. Studies of social–political debate, health–risk assessment, and responses to team victory or defeat have shown that people respond to information in a less defensive and more open–minded manner when their self–worth is buttressed by an affirmation of an alternative source of identity. Self–affirmed individuals are more likely to accept information that they would otherwise view as threatening, and subsequently to change their beliefs and even their behavior in a desirable fashion. Defensive biases have an adaptive function for maintaining self–worth, but maladaptive consequences for promoting change and reducing social conflict.

Key quotes: "Pro-choice partisans and pro-life partisans were presented with a debate between two activists on opposite sides of the abortion dispute….However, this confirmation bias was sharply attenuated among participants who affirmed a valued source of self-worth (by writing about a personally important value, such as their relations with friends)....although all participants left the debate feeling more confident in their beliefs about abortion than they had before, this polarization in attitude was significantly reduced among self-affirmed participants (cf. Lord et al., 1979)."  p. 120

"In one study (Cohen et al., 2000), devout opponents and proponents of capital punishment were presented with a persuasive scientific report that contradicted their beliefs about the death penalty’s effectiveness as a deterrent for crime....the responses of participants who received an affirmation of a valued self-identity (by writing about a personally important value, or by being provided with positive feedback on an important skill) proved more favorable.Self affirmed participants were less critical of the reported research, they suspected less bias on the part of the authors, and they even changed their overall attitudes toward capital punishment in the direction of the report they read." p. 121

"In one study, athletes who had just completed an intramural volleyball game assessed the extent to which each of a series of factors contributed to their team’s victory or defeat. As in past research (Lau & Russell, 1980),winners made more internal attributions for their victories than losers did for their defeats. However, among athletes who had reflected on an important value irrelevant to athletics, this self-serving bias was attenuated." p. 122


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