How the Brain Changes When We Practice Knowing Our Minds

Practicing self-affirmation wires your brain to recognize your own brand of failure, reducing the defensiveness that can hinder performance improvement.

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It was the 1980s that made self-esteem more like a punch line than a desirable quality. That decade brought us the much-ridiculed California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem (only California would create an official program for making people feel better about themselves), the National Association for Self-Esteem, and enthusiastic efforts to raise people’s self-esteem, not by making them smarter, more talented, kinder, or otherwise better but just by telling them how wonderful they are. It was the era of sports trophies for every kid who simply showed up.

Alas, as research subsequently showed, such artificially inflated self-esteem does not boost academic performance, occupational success, or leader ship ability, let alone improve personal relationships. The best account of these findings is a May 2003 paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

I was prompted to take this trip down memory lane when I began noticing a profusion of studies on “self-affirmation.” This is a little different from self-esteem. Self-affirmation is the process of reminding yourself of the values and interests “that constitute your true or core self,” Lisa Legault, assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., told me. “It’s taking stock of who you are and what you care about. You can think of it as mindfulness of the self—without the I’m wonderful component of self-esteem.”

What piqued my interest were findings showing that the process of self-affirmation—especially when we stumble in our personal relationships, mess up at work or school, or otherwise blunder—can not only reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that typically arise 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 requisite brain piece: dramatic images of neural activity when someone engages in it. I’m often skeptical about whether such studies really add to our understanding. 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 and emotionally tuned in to our mistakes—and thereby improve our performance.

First, a quick recap of what studies over the past 10 years have found about self-affirmation.

  1. 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. As a result, you might follow up a terrible ninth hole with a 35 on the back nine.
  2. Self-affirmation also makes you more likely to accept bad news about your health instead of denying it (“Me? high blood pressure? No way!”).
  3. It makes you more open to opposing views and more self-controlled.
  4. It reduces the gender and racial achievement gap by boosting women’s and African-American students’ academic performance.

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.

How the Brain Changes When We Practice Knowing Our Minds

But how does taking stock of your core values change the brain? To find out, Legault and her colleagues randomly assigned 35 student volunteers to engage in either a self-affirmation exercise or a distinctly non-self-affirming exercise. The affirmers were asked to rank six personal values, including political and religious ones, from most to least important 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 an 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 participants 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 electroencephalography, or EEG. Results: the self-affirmers made fewer errors of commission, pressing the button when W appeared 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, and being emotionally 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 mistakes— suggests that self-affirmation enhanced the ERN, which in turned improved performance.

Why Does Self Affirmation Improve Our Performance?

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 paradoxical—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 and thereby helps them improve,” she says. “Being our authentic selves reduces the defensiveness that can hinder performance improvement.”

This article also appeared in the June 2013 issue of Mindful magazine.
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