Published: March 1, 2013 By

In the 1990s, comedian—now U.S. Sen.—Al Franken made the line, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” part of the national lexicon with the creation of the fictional “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley” on Saturday Night Live.

Easy to mock, to be sure, in Stuart’s case. But self-affirmation actually can help people cope with the complications and challenges of everyday life.

“There is some evidence that when people self-affirm, they boost their cognitive resources. They have more mental energy to complete tasks after self affirmation,” says Arielle Silverman, graduate student in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Arielle Silverman, graduate student in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by Noah Larsen.

Arielle Silverman, graduate student in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by Noah Larsen.

But, says Silverman, co-author on “Self-affirmation as a deliberate coping strategy: The moderating role of choice,” published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, there are limits to self-affirmation—and when it comes to studying the phenomenon, it’s not simply about peering in the mirror and saying nice things about oneself.

“When we talk about self-affirmation, it’s quite specific,” she says. “It’s an exercise in which people write about their most important values.”

That writing can take various forms, but often people write about their personal assets, positive attributes or skills, art, music, their religious or political values or friends and families. In controlled experiments, subjects are given tests, and over nearly two decades researchers have discovered that such self-affirmations can reduce stress.

“It helps people perform better on tests when they are stressed out. It helps them see things at a higher level. They don’t worry as much on how well they’ll do on the test. They have other things in their life they can fall back on,” Silverman says.

But as the new article makes clear, there are limits to the tool. In particular, people don’t gain nearly the benefit when they feel they are being ordered to self-affirm. As is often the case with human beings, freedom of choice makes a difference.

“Affirmation’s benefits were negated when participants were made aware of its benefits and then required to self-affirm,” according to the article.

Silverman believes part of the negation can be explained by defensiveness created in subjects when told what to do.

“If you are told ‘You need to do this,’ people might be thinking, ‘I didn’t think I was worried, but maybe I was,’” she says. In other words, when told something is “good” for them, there may be an implicit message that something is wrong.

Silverman and her co-authors, Christine Logel of Canada’s University of Waterloo and Geoffrey L. Cohen of Stanford University, liken the situation to a similar effect discovered by researchers with regard to exercise.

“Exercise programs centered on intrinsically motivating activities, such as dancing to popular music, are often more effective in improving physical fitness than traditional physical education or programs explicitly purporting to improve physical fitness,” they write.

Silverman says that people benefit from self-affirmation when it is freely chosen. And that, she says, is a tool that people can learn to use themselves.

“If they know they are approaching something stressful, they can spontaneously think of positive things in their lives, and that might buffer them from the stress,” she says.

“Before taking a math test, if you spontaneously write about spring break, when you will see family and friends, there is some evidence that it does reduce the physiological markers of stress. … It just reminds people of the resources they have available to cope with stress.”