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Science: Self-Affirmation Can Break Cycle of Negative Thoughts

Updating the results of an experiment first reported in Science two years ago, researchers say that the positive effects from psychological interventions administered then are still being experienced today. The findings of this long-term study demonstrate how early and subtle self-affirmation exercises can have long-lasting impacts that help people to escape from perpetuating negative thoughts.

This experiment focused on racially diverse middle-school students, and specifically shows how values-affirmation exercises closed the achievement gap between low-performing African Americans students and their peers not only over one school term, but throughout students' tenure in middle school.

This new, updated research is published in the 17 April 2009 issue of the journal Science.

Geoffrey Cohen of the University of Colorado, along with colleagues from Columbia and Yale Universities, designed this experiment in which groups of European American and African American seventh-grade students were told to perform brief writing assignments on their personal values at times throughout their seventh- and eighth-grade school years. Such affirmations are known to reduce psychological stress, and the researchers believed they might improve performance as well.

To explain their rationale, Cohen writes: "In a society where economic success depends heavily on scholastic accomplishment, even partial remediation of the [achievement] gap would be consequential. This is especially true for low-achieving students, given the societal, institutional, and personal costs of academic failure... Situations where one could be treated in light of a negative stereotype can be stressful and thus undermine performance. For African Americans in school, the concern that they or another African American could be seen as confirming a negative stereotype about their group's intelligence can give rise to stress and depress performance."

Cohen and his colleagues issued simple writing assignments to two separate groups of middle-school students. Over the course of the study, one group was instructed to write about the personal importance of their self-defining values, while the other group was told to describe values that were unimportant to them, or similarly neutral topics like their morning routines.

After two years of these writing assignments, the researchers noted that African American students who participated in the values- and self-affirming writing assignments had raised their grade point average by about 0.24 grade points.

Among the African American students whose grades declined during the study, those who wrote about their own values still showed significantly smaller declines in their grades than those who were assigned neutral topics.

Interestingly, the self-affirming writing assignments did not have any effects on already-highly performing African American students or on European American students.

In light of these findings, Cohen and his colleagues suggest that, since one's initial psychological state and performance will determine later outcomes, early positive interventions have the potential to break recurring negative thoughts and promote more positive outcomes over long periods of time. "The low self-confidence of students who experience early failure, even by chance, is surprisingly difficult to undo," he writes. "A well-timed intervention could provide substantial long-term performance benefits through early interruption of a recursive cycle."

Perhaps the results of this study will eventually lead to changes in school policies, or even simply educate people so they might break their own negative cycles and improve their performance in school or at work.

"Effective psychological interventions depend on the presence of positive and sufficient structural, material, and human resources," these researchers conclude. "Together with such resources and other educational programs, such interventions can help individuals perform to their potential and produce lasting positive changes in equity and opportunity."