Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress
It's no secret that stress increases your susceptibility to health
problems, and it also impacts your ability to solve problems and be
creative. But methods to prevent associated risks and effects have been
less clear - until now.
A new research provides the first evidence that self-affirmation can
protect against the damaging effects of stress on problem-solving
performance. Understanding that self-affirmation - the process of
identifying and focusing on one's most important values - boosts
stressed individuals' problem-solving abilities will help guide future
research and the development of educational interventions.
"An emerging set of published studies suggest that a brief
self-affirmation activity at the beginning of a school term can boost
academic grade-point averages in under-performing kids at the end of the
semester. This new work suggests a mechanism for these studies, showing
self-affirmation effects on actual problem-solving performance under
pressure," said J. David Creswell,
assistant professor of psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of
Humanities and Social Sciences.
Because previous research indicated that self-affirmation may be an
effective stress management approach, Creswell and his research team had
college students rank-order a set of values (e.g. art, business, family
and friends) in terms of their personal importance, and indicate their
levels of chronic stress. Participants randomly assigned to a
self-affirmation condition were asked to write a couple of sentences
about why their number one ranked value was important (a standard
self-affirmation exercise). All participants then had to complete a
challenging problem-solving task under time pressure, which required
creativity in order to generate correct solutions.
The results showed that participants who were under high levels of
chronic stress during the past month had impaired problem-solving
performance. In fact, they solved about 50 percent fewer problems in the
task. But notably, this effect was qualified by whether participants had
an opportunity to first complete the self-affirmation activity.
Specifically, a brief self-affirmation was effective in eliminating the
deleterious effects of chronic stress on problem-solving performance,
such that chronically stressed self-affirmed participants performed
under pressure at the same level as participants with low chronic stress
"People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by
taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to
them," Creswell said. "It's an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can
roll out before you enter that high pressure performance situation."