24 Nov 2015

Do self affirmations work?

From Nine To Noon, 9:40 am on 24 November 2015

Self affirmations - positive messages about self worth - might sound like new-age nonsense, but a new study suggest they do work, as long as they mean something important to you and are focused on the future.

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While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of affirmations, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Chris Cascio and his colleagues put them to the test, using brain scans to see how they worked and when they were most effective.

He told Nine to Noon today that most affirmation exercises involved a person writing out a list of the things that were most important to them, and the study's big question was what was going on in the brain when people were writing out these affirmations that made them so receptive to information that would otherwise be threatening.

"So in our study we tried carrying this out in a scanner, where we could look at what was going on in the brain while the affirmation was occurring, so they don't have to think about it, or what they were thinking about while they were writing them."

He said the study found that the affirmations sparked brain activity that led to real-world results.

"People who were exposed to affirmations of their most important values, when they thought about it in a future context, we found increased activity in areas related to reward processing and regions related to self processing.

"The study involved sedentary adults and we gave them some health messages that suggested they should be more active and exercise more, and then the month following we monitored their behaviour. And we found that those people who had more activity in those regions went on to be less sedentary."

The study found the key element to a specific affirmation working was not the exact language, but what people were thinking about and what they were considering.

"So are you thinking about values in life that transcend yourself, something bigger than you. Kids are an example of a good thing to think about, because it's beyond you, it's not just a selfish thing that you value.

''Thinking about money is something that would not be so good. It's important and it's great to have and it helps people to buy the things they want, but it's not really this large value that connects you to others and broadens the sense of self."

Thinking about the affirmation in a future context produced a stronger result, said Mr Cascio, and the final key was that it had to be something the subject believed they could do.

"You can't lie to yourself, as much as we might want to believe we are great at all these things, if you know deep down inside these things are not up to par with what we're trying to tell ourselves, you can't just wish all these good things upon ourselves - you could, but your self knows you are lying to yourself."

Listen to the full Nine to Noon interview with Chris Cascio here:

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