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Mindful : June 2013
mind/body finding s showing that the process of self- affirmation—especially when we stumble in our persona l relationships, mess up at work or school, or otherwise blun- der—can not only reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that typically a rise when we goof but actually help us do better next time. And there was something else. Like much mind research these days, many studies of self-affirmation have the req- uisite brain piece: dramatic images of neural activity when someone engages in it. As those of you who read my last column know, I’m often skeptical about whether such studies really add to our understa nding. But in this case, they do: by identifying the neural correlates of self-affirmation, the research shows exactly how it can make us both more cognitively aware of a nd emotiona lly tuned in to our mistakes—a nd thereby improve our performance. First, a quick recap of what studies over the past 10 years or so have found about self-affirmation. Reminding yourself of your core values ma kes you less defensive in the face of threatening information such as negative feedback from your boss, criticism from a loved one, or even a lousy day on the golf course. As a result, you might follow up a terrible ninth hole with a 35 on the back nine. Self- affirmation a lso makes you more likely to accept bad news about your health instead of denying it (“Me? high blood pressure? No way!”). It ma kes you more open to opposing views and more self-controlled. It even reduces the racial-achievement gap by boosting Africa n-A merica n stu- dents’ academic performa nce. But how does it work? To find out, Legault a nd her colleagues ra ndomly assigned 35 student volunteers to engage in either a self-a ffirmation exer- cise or a distinctly non-self-affirming exercise. The affirmers were asked to rank six persona l values, including political and religious ones, from most to least importa nt to them. Then, for five minutes, they wrote about why their top value mattered. The non-affirmers also ranked the six values but then wrote about why their top pick was not very important to them. Composing a n essay on why, say, your church—which you just named as your most important value—is unimportant is a good way to undermine your sense of who you are. For their next task, the partici- pants pressed a button whenever an M appeared on a screen for one-tenth of a second; when W appeared equally briefly, they were to refrain from pressing the button. If they goofed, “Wrong!” popped onto the screen. All the while, Legault measured their brain activity via electro- encephalography, or EEG. Results: the self-affirmers made fewer errors of commission, pressing the button when W appea red 7% of the time versus 12.4% for the non-affirmers. The brain activity of the two groups differed as well. People who had engaged in self-affirmation (“This is why my top value matters”) had higher levels of a brain wave called the “error-related negativity,” or ERN, when they made a mistake. The ERN is generated by a region toward the front of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in detecting errors, anticipating rewards, a nd being emotion- ally aware. The ERN brain wave basically signals, “Oops, I goofed” and has a strong emotional component; it’s why we feel bad when we mess up. The more we’re wrapped up in a task and the more we care, the stronger the ERN is when we fail or receive criticism. The finding that the self-affirming study participants had a stronger “oops” wave—as well as fewer the mistakes— suggests that self-affirmation enhanced the ERN, which in turned improved performance. Why? Probably because self-affirmation makes us more open to negative feedback in the form of the “oops” wave. As a result of that openness, we do not shut out the fact that we erred—as the ERN wave tells us—by defensively denying or rejecting that fact (“Stupid button—I never got close to it!”). Instead, we pay attention to the mistake or criticism, take it to heart, and learn from the experience—always a good way to get better at something. “These findings are the first to let us in on how the brain mediates the effects of self-affirmation: by increasing the distress we feel when we make an error, as measured by the ERN,” says Legault. That might seem pa radoxical—you’d think self-affirmation would make you less upset, not more—but the research suggests that the distress is useful. “It orients people to their failings a nd thereby helps them improve,” she says. “ Being our authentic selves reduces the defensiveness that ca n hinder perfor- mance improvement.” ● Reminding yourself of your core values makes you less defensive in the face of threatening information such as negative feedback from your boss, criticism from a loved one, or even a lousy day on the golf course. 32 mindful June 2013