How beliefs affect your life

Much has been written about how beliefs influence our lives. Various companies exploit this by advertising self-affirmation, offering programs to improve motivation and trying to convince us that we cannot live without it. As a matter of fact, however, the truth may be quite different and may even completely undermine the idealistic picture of self-help from the marketplace.

Self-affirmation theory

In 1988, Claude Steel popularized the theory of self-affirmation, which posited that people feel the need to maintain their personal integrity. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. In the event of a threat to one of these core values whether it be religion, family, work or hobby, people try consciously and unconsciously to diminish the negative feelings. Moreover, the frequently-occurring phenomenon here is a defensive reaction to diminish or make light of the threat; but also consistent with the theory of self-affirmation is to deal with the threat by referring to those spheres of life that we value equally highly and focusing our attention or action on them.  As a result,  self-esteem increases and this allows for a rational approach to the given issue.

Many experiments have been conducted to confirm this theory which in various ways made use of many personal values measured on scales as published in 1960 by Gordon Allport, Phillip Vernon, and Gardner Lindzey. For example, in the experiments of Mark Reed and Lisa Aspinwall (1998), participants were informed of the risk of a particular disease caused by profuse coffee drinking and then they were instructed to think about situations when they were kind to someone. As a result they were able to accommodate the threat. Similar research was undertaken by Peter Harris and Lucy Napper (2005) regarding women who drank too much alcohol.  It was shown that the test subjects after a month continually considered their habit harmful, although their behavior did not change. It could be that the power of the addiction hindered change.

Reduction of anxiety

Aside from studies of the change of beliefs strengthening the ego, research has been done on the reduction of stress.  What is particularly significant according to Amy Arnsten (2009) is that the excess stress interferes with solving problems and weakens creativity.  Also appearing interesting in this context is the experiment of the team of James Cresswell (2005), which asked participants to rank on a scale of importance items that would improve their mood.  Later, when they performed stressful tasks, the level in their blood of cortisol, a stress hormone, was lower than that of the control group.

A group of scientists led by Lisa Legault (2012) applied a slightly different procedure that recorded a reduction of errors made during the task of choosing correct answers.  The results suggest that self-affirmation helps test subjects focus on how they can perform better.  Additionally, according to the research of Creswell (2013), highly stressed individuals who underwent strengthening of their global self-esteem coped better with solving problems, and thus they associated more easily correlated facts and were more creative. This gives hope to pupils and students who have worse outcomes because of nervousness.

The role of self-Esteem

In 1993, Steele and his colleagues found that people who have high self-esteem and therefore feel above average in regard to various aspects of life are better prepared to manage problems, trying to resolve them instead of rationalizing their ignorance. Such people, however, must first recognize their own psychological resources by becoming aware of how important particular values are for them. Experiments carried out under the leadership of Shelley Taylor (2003) and Mark Seer (2004) make it possible to assume that these results can also be linked to the matter of coping with stress.

High self-esteem turned out to be a crucial influence also in the struggle with a threatening stereotype or when a social role was involved that is widely associated with submissiveness.  A good insight into this issue is the observations by the team of Laura Kray, which pointed out that strong preconceptions reduced the competence of women relative to men in the area of important negotiations. However, this effect disappeared if the point of view was presented that a typical feminine characteristic produced an advantage in this situation. Making different assumptions, however, was Sonia King (2015), who with the help of some colleagues managed to improve the negotiating effectiveness of the psychologically weaker party (when buyer and seller were paired up) by directing his or her attention to other important parts of his or her life.

The effectiveness of positive formulas

In the popular understanding of self-affirmation, positive statements about oneself are repeated in the hope of making them come true. Furthermore, both the concept of freedom of acceptance developed by Muzafer Sherif and Carl Howland in 1961 and the theory of self-comparison quoted and confirmed by Donna Eisenstand and Michael Leippe (1994) and William Swann and Daniel Schroeder (1995) say that one cannot accept claims that differ significantly from the picture that one has of oneself, and it is not significant whether it comes from oneself or one’s environment. In addition, according to Mark Zanna (1993), inconsistent statements can even strengthen us in a negative belief.

This view is also confirmed in the research of the team under the leadership of Joanna Wood (2009), which focused on the influence of self-affirmation on people with high and low self-esteem. The participants expressed their belief about the effectiveness of this form of self-help, and the first group declared their frequent use of it. The experiment revealed that the people with low self-esteem did not benefit from the repetition of positive statements, which might have even slightly worsened their mood.  On the other hand, people with a high level of self-esteem benefited only slightly.  This outcome questions the validity of using self-affirmation because it does not help those who truly need it and gives a false impression of usefulness for the others.

With an alternative to traditional self-affirmation came the research team led by Ibrahim Senay (2010), who first ordered the volunteers to think over whether they could solve anagrams and then asked them to do it.  The control group differed only in that they were to think that they would succeed. The results were that the first group finished significantly more problems.  The next two parts of the experiment were to test the effect of writing down short questions (“Will I”) and their components (“I”, “will”), which were to be seen as connected and separate items.  Here better results were obtained, but only if the participants believed that the phrases and words as presented made any sense.  This last procedure, in addition to the exposure to the question “Will I” also involved an assessment of the participants’ motivation to start or maintain regular physical activity.  After that, the volunteers pointed out which of the twelve possible reasons to do it were most convincing for them.  It turned out that the very contact with the question increased the level of self-motivation for the exercises, which suggests that the question is a mediator between the awakening – even unconsciously – of a thought and the desire for action.

How it relates to language learning?

At this stage you should already be aware that many of the above facts can have a direct impact on your learning. However, the validity of applying the results of these experiments to language acquisition is not conclusive, because the very impact of beliefs on the process of acquiring such knowledge and using it in practice has not yet been adequately examined. From what is known so far, we can draw the assumption that self-affirmation consisting in focusing attention on other important life values can be effective in changing habits related to language learning because they convince you that it is not that hard, they improve communication skills in stressful situations where one party seems to have a psychological advantage, they reduce stress and the number of errors you make and they increase creativity and problem-solving skills through overcoming your nervousness, that is they improve the things that are essential when you take aim at mastering a foreign language. When it comes to simple affirmations for learning languages, I would not bother with them; they are likely to help only those who don’t actually need them. And finally, speculation over whether you will do something seems to be a good idea for improving the motivation to do something.

Further reading

  1. Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PloS one, 8(5), e62593.
  2. Kang, S. K., Galinsky, A. D., Kray, L. J., & Shirako, A. (2015). Power Affects Performance When the Pressure Is On Evidence for Low-Power Threat and High-Power Lift. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin41(5), 726-735.
  3. Legault, L., Al-Khindi, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Preserving integrity in the face of performance threat self-affirmation enhances neurophysiological responsiveness to errors. Psychological science, 0956797612448483.
  4. Senay, I., Albarracín, & D., Noguchi, K. (2010). Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk the role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. Psychological Science21(4), 499-504.
  5. Sherman, D. K., Cohen, & G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. Advances in experimental social psychology38, 183.
  6. Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science20(7), 860-866.
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