Sometimes we find ourselves in what a psychologist would call a ‘low power position.’ Classic example? A job interview. At such times you would perform better if you used self-affirmations, which not only boost your confidence but effectively reduce power differences, a new study says.

“Anytime you have low expectations for your performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations,” Dr. Sonia Kang, lead researcher and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said in a press release. “Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat.”

The researchers conducted three experiments, each designed to measure participants’ performance in pressure-filled situations.

In the first experiment, 134 participants (60 percent women) were matched with a same-sex partner and then one portrayed a recruiter , the other a job candidate. Then the two competitively negotiated salary, vacation time, and other job benefits. To add to the pressure, the researchers told half of the participants the experiment provided an accurate gauge of their negotiating skills. The remaining participants believed the exercise was a simple teaching demonstration that did not reflect upon their abilities.

Job candidates --- the lower power role --- performed significantly worse in the high-stakes negotiations than in the low-stakes encounters. By comparison the recruiters performed better under pressure.

In a second experiment, 60 MBA students, all men, were paired as buyer and seller of a biotech plant. Once again the power position (the sellers) performed better under pressure, showing more assertiveness and negotiating a higher selling price, while the buyers performed worse in the higher stress condition.

The same biotechnology plant exercise was repeated in the final experiment except this time with 88 new MBA students (33 male pairs and 11 female). In this instance, all participants believed the exercise would gauge their negotiating skills. There was one more twist: before the competition, half the participants wrote for five minutes about their most important negotiating skill, while the other half wrote about their least important negotiating skill. How did this affect the results?

The low power players who completed the highly positive self-affirmations performed significantly better in negotiating a lower sale price than the others.

“Anyone has the potential to do really well. It's how you respond under pressure that makes a key difference,” said Kang. “You should reflect on things that you know are good about yourself.”

Writing down a self-affirmation may be more effective than just thinking it, but both methods can help, she explained. And, for the self-doubters in the crowd, simply writing or thinking about your family or other positive life circumstances, even if they aren't necessarily associated with the situation at hand, also work to boost confidence and performance.

Source: Kang S, Galinsky A, Kray L, Shirako A. Power Affects Performance When the Pressure Is On: Evidence for Low-Power Threat and High-Power Lift. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2015.