“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” This famous line, spoken by Henry Ford, has been applied in psychology and self-improvement arenas for decades. Self-affirmations are positive words of encouragement that people can say to themselves, out loud or silently. They have been used in various ways to help people overcome, achieve, and persist at many different things in life. However, few clinical studies have been conducted to see if self-affirmations actually help people with specific cognitive tasks while they are under stress.
Students face stressful situations throughout their academic careers. Taking tests, giving speeches, working with others, completing research papers — all of these events can create stress for students. Some students perform well with relatively few problems. Others do not. Stress can create anxiety and even panic. Many students who experience stress see significant decreases in their academic performance as a result.
J. David Creswell of the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania wanted to see if self-affirmations helped these students. In a recent study, Creswell evaluated the academic performance of 80 college students who had experienced stress in the month prior to entering the study. The students were assigned to either a self-affirmation condition or a control condition and then required to complete a timed exam that entailed problem solving and concentration. Creswell found that the students who practiced self-affirmations did much better on the exam than the control group students.
The results of this study suggest that self-affirmations may be useful in academic settings. For college students, especially those who perform poorly when under stress, using this technique can potentially increase their self-esteem, confidence, and even academic results. At-risk students, including those from culturally diverse groups, who demonstrate vulnerabilities to stress could benefit greatly from a method such as this. Creswell even thinks that initiating this type of program at the beginning of the school year could strengthen students’ confidence and reduce the negative effects of stress throughout the academic year. He added, “The present research contributes to a broader effort at understanding how stress management approaches can facilitate problem-solving performance under stress.”
Creswell, J.D., Dutcher, J.M., Klein, W.M.P., Harris, P.R., Levine, J.M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem solving under stress. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062593
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