“I hurt a lot of people, did a lot of bad things.” A man appears, he tells you he’s you, just in a different body and he’s time travelled from another lifetime. After you get over the initial shock, he tells you some of the stuff he’s/you’ve done in his/your life, and it’s bad, really bad. Would you accept that is who you are (or could be)? A person who’s done terrible things you have no memory of?

Well, no.

You’re me from the future, you say?

But what if it was?

How hard would you work to justify yourself, that you’re a good person, that you drank too much last week but you’re going to do better, and you’ve stopped eating bacon and isn’t that enough?
We work so hard to stop ourselves feeling bad about the way we think and/or behave, and that’s because of our old friend, cognitive dissonance.

It’s also why blaming ‘old white guys’ for the world’s problems, isn’t particularly effective in producing change. Most people that fit into that category wouldn’t identify with it. Plus, using parts of someone’s identity to criticise them is problematic in general, it’s far too easy to reject categorisation as ‘well… that’s not me.’ The first reaction is to protect your self. We’re pretty delicate creatures underneath it all.

Self-affirmation

Studies have shown that if you think of something that you value – like being a good friend, a good dad, a good teacher or listener, then if you write about how that thing is meaningful to you can make it less likely for dissonance to develop.

There’s something about doing this, as if it solidifies your sense of self, so when a threat appears, we’re better able to deal with. Instead of rejecting the threat outright, our defences aren’t raised as after self-affirming, so the message gets through.

For example, studies show that if heavy smokers are given messages about how smoking causes cancer, often they reject the information outright, or otherwise don’t do anything about it. But, after being self-affirmed about a value unrelated to their health. The message is more likely to be listened to and smoking behaviour changes.

Do all affirmations work?

Image of a young woman looking off into distance with 'I am unique' in large letters.

Does this kind of message make you feel all warm and fuzzy (and affirmed) or leave you feeling cold?

Not all affirmations are equal. It needs to be a value that means something to you, if you don’t have children, affirming about being a good parent doesn’t mean much. And it’s suggested that for people with really low self-esteem, self-affirmations aren’t particularly helpful. For the affirmation to be influential, you’ve got to 1) care about it, and 2) believe the affirmation.

Our natural defensiveness is something which is worth being aware of. It’s pretty powerful and can impact a lot of our thoughts and behaviour, whether that’s rejecting time travellers, or justifying having another doughnut (since you went for that run last week). Maybe by being aware of the delicateness of our selves, we might be more open to positive change.


Want to read more?

Interested in social psychology? You can read about social influence in my previous posts or about how we can better understand our world through stories.

If you’re interested in reading about psychology and writing, or psychology and social media you might want to take a look at my other posts on social influence and social media. Or how reading reviews might change your opinions before you know what they are.