Remember the last time a loved one asked you to eat a little healthier? Or the time that your manager asked you to work a little harder? If you were like me, you immediately became defensive. You concocted reasons in your head for why he or she was wrong and never really considered the possibility of the person being right. Good managers, however, know that the way to make you listen is to start off by complimenting you, and then directing any criticism. But why do we become defensive in the first place, and why does the initial complimenting work?
This is because of a curious phenomenon called self-affirmation. Each of us has a positive mental image of ourselves as worthy individuals, and all of us try to protect that image. This image could just be that we are hard-working individuals who eat sufficiently healthy food. When this mental image comes under attack, such as through criticism from a manager, the first response is to become defensive and protective. Putting up these mental defense barriers tends to use up a considerable portion of our brain’s resources, and therefore we have trouble taking a rational look at what the manager says. However, if this mental image is first reinforced or affirmed through initial praise, we don’t put up defensive barriers. This allows our brains to make full use of available resources and take a more level-headed viewpoint of criticism as potential for improvement rather than a personal attack.
Self-affirmation isn’t some obscure thing that only needs to be mentioned in business school. With appropriate use, it could have huge impacts on society in general. In the modern political arena, there is a lot of rhetoric directed against the poor which stereotypes them as being lazy1,2. In fact, a CBS report from two years ago found that 27% of Americans believe that people are poor because of laziness3. Psychologists have known that poverty and the stigma associated with it place a heavy burden on the minds of the poor. It uses up the brain’s resources which in turn affects the ability to make good decisions – imagine trying to do calculus while holding a heavy sandbag over your head. A group of researchers from the University of Washington, University of British Columbia, and Princeton hypothesized that this mental burden has the same effect on the poor that criticism has on you and me. Therefore by using something similar to the initial praise that managers use, the researchers could then try to alleviate some of this burden and allow them to make wiser decisions.
The researchers asked people from an urban soup kitchen to relate experiences that made them feel proud of themselves. A separate group of people from the same kitchen were asked to describe something more mundane, their daily meal routine. Both groups then played a small game which tested their ability to think fast and make decisions. The group which was self-affirmed, i.e. asked to relate a proud experience, performed much better. But what if this increase in performance was the result of an uplifted mood, rather than the effects of self-affirmation? To account for this, the researchers repeated the experiment but instead of relating a positive experience, the group was asked to watch a funny video. The resulting uplifted mood did not have any effect on how well the group performed at the game. So it seems like self-affirmation was enough to improve their performance on mental tasks.
But is self-affirmation alleviating some mental burden of poverty specifically? The researchers conducted the same self-affirmation tests on individuals with an annual income greater than $94,000. These individuals showed no increase in performance after self-affirmation. So, it is likely that self-affirmation was indeed removing some of the chronic mental burden from the poor, while the affluent did not possess similar mental burdens.
The mental burden of poverty has also been shown to decrease the number of working poor who make use of programs that would benefit them4. One really interesting result of this study was that the group from the soup kitchen that related a positive experience did not just do better at mental tests, they were also more likely to consider programs that would lift them out of poverty. Outside the soup kitchen, the researchers had setup volunteers at tables that handed out flyers describing these programs. More of the self-affirmed poor had stopped to collect the flyers and discuss the programs with the volunteers.
It is astonishing to realize that part of the reason for someone’s poverty might be the opinions that you and I have about them. Not only do the poor face an acute financial burden, but they also face chronic mental burdens with daily insults and criticism, like our worst day in the office every day. These burdens may be invisible, but they are no less real than running a race with lead weights on your feet. Yet this work suggests some unusual solutions, a way to see ourselves in the faces of those less fortunate, and points towards the curious power of affirming someone’s humanity.
From this article, also written about here:
Hall, Crystal C., Jiaying Zhao, and Eldar Shafir. “Self-Affirmation Among the Poor: Cognitive and Behavioral Implications.” Psychological science (2013): 0956797613510949.
1. Kerbo, Harold R. “The stigma of welfare and a passive poor.” Soc. & Soc. Research (1976). ↩
2. Fiske, Susan T. Envy up, scorn down: How status divides us. Russell Sage Foundation, 2011. ↩
3. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/report-27-of-americans-think-poor-are-lazy/ ↩
4. Gale, William G., and Janet Rothenberg Pack, eds. Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2001. Brookings Institution Press, 2001. ↩