Study Reveals the Neural Mechanics of Self-Affirmation

Researchers have long marveled at the almost-magical power of self-affirmation: Minority students who reflect on their core values do better in school. People with opposing political views become more open to hearing one another, while people with bad health habits become more amenable to shaping up. The simple act of focusing on the sources of meaning and purpose in our lives is incredibly effective at lowering defenses and changing behavior.

How exactly does self-affirmation work? Researchers have had some ideas, but to date, no one has been entirely sure.

Now, researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Michigan and UCLA, have uncovered what goes on in our brains during self-affirmation.

The study, led by Doctoral Candidate Christopher Cascio and Associate Professor Emily Falk and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find that self-affirmation activates well-known reward centers in the brain. These areas — the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) — are the same reward centers that respond to other pleasurable experiences, such as eating your favorite meal or winning a prize.  

“Affirmation takes advantage of our reward circuits, which can be quite powerful,” says Cascio. “Many studies have shown that these circuits can do things like dampen pain and help us maintain balance in the face of threats.”

The study also found that self-affirmation increases activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), areas of the brain connected to self-related processing. That, says Cascio, suggests that increases on self-related processing act as a kind of emotional buffer to any painful, negative, or threatening information that follows.

Not only does this study reveal how the brain behaves during self-affirmation, but also focuses on differences in past versus future orientated self-affirmations, which has not been a main focus of self-affirmation research. 

In each of these brain regions identified in the study, the effects of self-affirmation were stronger when participants thought about a future orientation versus the past. For example, if someone identifies as career-oriented, the statement “Think about a time in the future when you will experience career success,” will create more self-affirming brain activity than “Think about your past career success.”

Behavior change is often difficult, Cascio explains, because messages that offer advice can be threatening to people’s sense of competence and positive self-regard.

“From a communications perspective, a major goal is simply to try and get people to consider information or advice that they perceive as threatening,” he says. “If we know the neural systems that are involved in self-affirmation and we can design interventions or messages that increase activity in these systems, we should be able to land more interventions with our intended audience.”

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In addition to Cascio and Falk, this study was co-authored by Matthew Brook O’Donnell of the University of Pennslvania; Francis J. Tinney, Jr. and Victor J. Stretcher of the University of Michigan; and Matthew D. Liberman and Shelley E. Taylor of the University of California, Los Angeles. It was also supported by The Michigan Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research (NIH-P50 CA101451, PI Stretcher), a NIH New Innovator Award (1DP2DA03515601, PI Falk), and NIH/NCI grant 1R01CA1880015-01 (PI Falk).