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Affirm the Self to Promote Health

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Woman looking at herself in mirror


People’s desire to see themselves in the best light prevents them from accurately perceiving risks to their health. 


Reassuring people that they are good helps them accept negative information about their health.  


Social psychologists David Sherman, Leif Nelson, and Claude Steele randomly assigned 60 women, who identified as either coffee drinkers or non-coffee drinkers, to either a control group or a treatment group. Women in both groups first read an article that linked caffeine consumption to breast cancer. [Ed. note: Caffeine consumption has not actually been linked to breast cancer.] Next, women in the treatment condition wrote about a value that was important to them, while women in the control condition wrote about a value that was not important to them.  The researchers hypothesized that writing about an important value would affirm treatment-condition participants’ sense of themselves as good, while control-condition participants who wrote about an unimportant value would not experience this so-called “self-affirmation.”

Sherman and colleagues indeed found that coffee drinkers in the treatment condition reported a greater willingness to reduce their caffeine intake than did coffee drinkers in the control condition. In other words, boosting participants’ self-image made them more receptive to threatening health information. Meanwhile, non-coffee drinkers believed the article regardless of condition, because the news that caffeine consumption is linked to breast cancer was not threatening to them.

In a second study, the researchers randomly assigned 61 undergraduate students (30 male, 31 female) to write about an important (self-affirmation group) or unimportant (control group) value before watching a video about HIV/AIDS. As in the first study, students in the self-affirmation group perceived themselves to be at greater risk of getting HIV/AIDS than did students in the control group. Moreover, students in the self-affirmation group bought more condoms and took more educational brochures on AIDS than did students in the control group, demonstrating that self-affirmation can increase disease prevention.

Together, these studies illustrate that self-affirmation makes people more accepting of and responsive to threatening health information. 

Why This Works

People want to see themselves as good and virtuous, and so they are reluctant to accept information that threatens their positive self-views. By bolstering people’s self-image, self-affirmation makes people more receptive to potentially threatening health information. 

When This Works Best

Self-affirmation works best when the health risk is personally relevant. For example, self-affirmation will help a coffee drinker accept information linking caffeine to breast cancer, but will not have the same effect on a non-coffee drinker.   

The Original Study

Sherman, D. A., Nelson, L. D., & Steele, C. M. (2000). Do messages about health risks threaten the self? Increasing the acceptance of threatening health messages via self-affirmation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletn,26(9), 1046-1058.

In the Press

Society for Personality and Social Psychology Blog

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Text by Emily Witt 

Photo cc by Allen Skyy (adapted for size)

Thumbnail image via Taylor Smith / Unsplash