Self-Affirmation Doesn't Mean Talking Yourself up in a Mirror

Self-affirmation techniques are the butt of many jokes, including a famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Al Franken. But value affirmation is something different, says Harvard's Amy Cuddy.

Amy Cuddy:  There was this old Saturday Night Live sketch called "Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley," who was played by Al Franken, who is now a politician. And he would look into the mirror and say, "I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me." And by the end of it he would be saying to himself, "I am in a shame spiral. I’m going to die homeless and penniless and overweight. No one will ever love me. I am a fraud. I’m a phony." And so what was funny about that was that we all know that that doesn’t work.

When you feel acutely anxious and self-doubting the last thing you should do is lie to yourself, right? So what happens is that that creates a kind of backlash that makes you feel not only more anxious, but now you’re also a liar, right? Now you’re lying to yourself. So that’s not the kind of self-affirmation that I’m talking about. The kind of self-affirmation I’m talking about is this where you really do identify what are your core values? What are the things that no one can really change about you? Why do they matter to you? And you kind of anchor yourself in them. Now what the research shows – and there literally are hundreds of studies on self-affirmation and most of this was work done by Stanford psychologists led by Claude Steele. And what they find is that when people self-affirm, it is the simplest exercise. It really is. One, what are your core values? Two, why do they matter to you? Three, write about a time when you express this. When people do that, it dramatically lowers their stress and anxiety, self-reported stress and anxiety — it lowers their neuroendocrine measures of stress and anxiety like cortisol and epinephrine.

And it allows them to perform much better in a stressful task. So somebody might self-affirm and write about why, you know, family matters to them. And then they go take a really hard math test. Not only are they less stressed out, they actually do better on the math test. Now what’s funny about it is it’s not somebody saying to him or herself I’m a math genius, you know, I’m a real Einstein. It has nothing to do with math. The self-affirmation could have nothing to do with math. Why does it work? It works because when we are reminded of who we really are it’s okay to not be perfect, right. So you can go into that stressful situation and know that no matter what happens you are leaving it as yourself. So I think it’s a pretty wonderful little intervention. There’s a recent study showing that employees whose orientations focused on self-affirmation in both Indian and American call centers — those employees who did that orientation as opposed to a general orientation — stayed at the job longer, were happier, and provided better customer service. So it’s for a long time. It’s not something that lasts only a day, so it’s pretty amazing.

Okay, so you self-affirmed. Now you know who you are. The next part is really how do you access that. In your sort of day to day life when you’re not facing one of these big challenges, you’re naturally expressing who you really are because you’re not afraid to tell your friends what you care about or show your family who you really are. When you get into those stressful situations, the last thing you’re thinking about is, "I need to make sure that I show them exactly who I am." And so instead showing them who you are becomes very threatening and, you know, that wall goes up. And now you can’t access those things. Even if you want to you can’t access them because you’re into kind of fight or flight mode. So it all turns on feeling powerful. And what I mean by power is not power over others. That’s social power. Personal power is power over the self. So it’s power to access the resources that you already possess, right?

So it’s the things that you internally possess that again your values, your skills, your knowledge, your personality. When you feel powerful you can access those things. When you feel personally powerless, suddenly you can’t access those things. So the really important difference between social power and personal power is that social power is zero sum and personal power is infinite. Everyone can be personally powerful. In fact I would argue that you want people to be personally powerful because you’re getting the best version of everyone when they feel that way. Personal power does not make people competitive in this sort of zero-sum fixed-pie way. It makes people open and action oriented and creative. And, frankly, just kind of more interesting people.

Self-affirmation techniques are the butt of many jokes, including a famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Al Franken. But value affirmation is something different, says Harvard's Amy Cuddy. The last thing you want to do if you're looking for more self-assurance and confidence is lie to yourself (the conceit of Franken's sketch). Instead, says Cuddy, focus on your personal values: what they are, what makes them immutable, and why they're important to you.


As a follow up exercise, Cuddy suggests writing about a time when you express these values. The endpoint of self-affirmation through your values is an increase in power — not power over other people, but internal power that represents a form of self-mastery. Not only is this an effective way to make individuals more confident and more effective, it makes people more interesting in general.

Cuddy's book is Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
Keep reading Show less

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
  • The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
  • The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast