Study: Self-affirmation Reduces Stress and Improves Problem-solving

When Al Franken was on Saturday Night Live, one of his trademark skits was “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley.”

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” he often repeated to himself in the mirror.

Those years of self-affirmation may have helped, because now Franken is a U.S. senator in Minnesota.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University published in the journal PLOS One says using self-affirmation can boost your problem-solving skills under pressure. 

“A brief self-affirmation activity is sufficient to buffer the negative effects of chronic stress on task performance and can improve the ability to solve problems in a flexible manner during high stress periods,” researchers said in a press release. “Our study suggests that self-affirmation may increase creativity and insight in stressed individuals.” 

Self-affirmation is reiterating valued sources of self-worth when one’s self-image is threatened. Basically, it’s telling yourself your good points when you’re under the gun, and the Carnegie researchers say it can help ward off stress.

Testing the Effects of Self-affirmation

To test the effectiveness of self-affirmation under stress, Carnegie researchers recruited 73 college students with an average age of 21 from two urban universities in Pittsburgh. 

Prior to taking a well-known standardized problem-solving and creativity test, test subjects were asked if they were willing to complete a questionnaire and writing activity. They were randomly assigned to rank 11 values in terms of personal importance. 

Half took part in a self-affirmation technique by writing about their top-rated highest value and why it was important to them, while the control group wrote about their ninth-ranked value and why it would be important to others.

After the questionnaire, test subjects underwent the timed problem-solving test with an evaluator in the room, who purposely increased stress by rating the scores and saying things like “I need you to try harder.” Their stress levels were rated by questionnaire, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Evidence of the Positive Effects of Self-affirmation

The researchers said the students who completed the self-affirmation exercise scored “significantly higher” on the problem-solving test than those who didn’t. 

Their results, they said, are the first evidence that self-affirmation can protect against the detrimental effects of stress.

“The present research contributes to a broader effort at understanding how stress management approaches can facilitate problem-solving performance under stress. Despite many studies showing that acute and chronic stressors can impair problem-solving, we know little about stress management and coping approaches for buffering stress during problem-solving,” researchers said in the study. “Our work suggests that self-affirmation may be a relatively easy-to-use strategy for mitigating stress and improving problem-solving performance in evaluative settings.”

Hopefully Sen. Franken keeps his stress down by keeping up his self-affirmation when problem-solving on Capitol Hill.

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