Remembering better times certainly eases the souls of most people, but for those in poverty, it is of particular use. A new study concentrating on the impoverished finds that recalling past success may improve cognitive function by several IQ points while also increasing a person’s willingness to seek help from aid services. “This study shows that surprisingly simple acts of self-affirmation improve the cognitive function and behavioral outcomes of people in poverty,” Jiaying Zhao, a professor at University of British Columbia and co-author, stated in press release. The study is slated to be published later this month in Psychological Science.

Self-Affirmation and IQ

Previous studies concentrating on two marginalized groups — African-American students and female math students — provided evidence of the ways in which self-affirmation may improve test scores. Based on those experiments, the researchers of the current study decided to employ similar methods when investigating the effects of self-affirmation techniques on the poor. The researchers conducted their main experiments in a New Jersey soup kitchen over a two-year period. Nearly 150 participants recorded a personal story in private before taking a variety of problem-solving tests. (Due to participants’ low literacy levels, the researchers decided an oral story would work best.) Compared to the control group, those participants who had been randomly selected to “self-affirm” — to speak of a past achievement or proud moment — achieved a ten-point increase in IQ and performed dramatically better on tests. They also were more likely to seek out information on aid services from the local government.

Professor Zhao and his colleagues Eldar Shafir of Princeton University and Crystal Hall of University of Washington believe that reconnecting the poor with their feelings of self-worth may reduce the stigma of poverty while also deconstructing psychological barriers that prevent low-income individuals from making the kind of decisions that would help them get back on their feet. Self-affirmation, then, may be highly effective when confronting issues of poverty, but not all researchers believe its benefits are quite so dramatic or persistent.

Alternative View

To test whether self-affirmation really does help people to respond to challenges in healthy and productive ways as most research has shown, a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota designed a series of experiments that would test motivation as well as performance. Participants were randomly assigned to confront either an easy or difficult task. One group of participants had to move, using only chopsticks, individual pieces of rice from one plate to another plate, while a second group performed the same task though under much more difficult conditions. In their case, the researchers moved the destination plate far from the first. They also told participants they had to move so many individual pieces of rice within a short, timed interval — essentially, they were given an impossible task. Within both groups, the participants had been divided into two subgroups: one primed with self-affirmations, the other not.

The researchers measured how hard participants tried to complete their tasks, the participants’ feelings of motivation, and also asked participants, after many failures, if they wanted a training session in order to continue toward their goal. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that being self-affirmed and experiencing failure caused participants to feel less capable of pursuing their goals, which in turn produced poorer performance. Even worse, the self-affirmed participants felt demotivated to complete their goal. “The current research demonstrates that self-affirmation can ... deflate motivation and performance, a pattern consistent with goal disengagement,” the researchers wrote.

According to Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing, self-affirmation may have its uses but it is not beneficial in all cases. “Nothing is all good or bad,” Vohs, the lead author of this study, stated in an interview. “Self-affirmation can be good at going up against small challenges or initial parts of challenges, but it doesn’t always do so well as people continue to come up against failure.”

Sources: Zhao J, Shafir E, Hall C. Self-Affirmation Among the Poor: Cognitive and Behavioral Implications Psychological Sciences. 2013.

Vohs KD, Park JK, Schmeichel BJ. Self-affirmation can enable goal disengagement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2013.