You’re a big, brave dog: Researchers say self-affirmation boosts performance

WASHINGTON — “I’m a big, brave dog, I’m a big, brave dog!”

After becoming terrified of the big boy slide during a toddler-level tragic accident, Chuckie Finster of Rugrats fame becomes unilaterally scared of all slides. He’s therefore also scared of the fact that he may never slide again.

Living in terror, his friend Suzie approaches him and says it’s time to not be afraid.

“Stop saying you’re scared. You’re big and you’re brave. Like a big, brave dog,” Suzie tells Chuckie.

“Say it!”

“I’m a big, brave dog. I’m a big, brave dog, I’m a big, brave dog,” Chuckie chants.

It turns out that Suzie was really onto something.

A study published April 17 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that self-affirmations not only help people perform better, but also could make up for differences in power, reports science news publication EurekAlert!

In the study, researchers developed three experiments in which groups of people were divided into groups with different power. In one experiment, there were job candidates and recruiters, in another there were buyers and sellers.

In the final experiment, there were also buyers and sellers but, before the experiment began, half were told to write about their most important negotiating skills. The other half wrote about their least important skills.

Buyers who wrote about their positive skills in the final experiment did better than the buyers in the second experiment, even though they were both in positions of less power than the seller.

In the first experiment, with candidates and recruiters, half were told they would learn negotiation skills while the others were told the experiment would gauge them. Job candidates performed worse in the experiment whereas the recruiters performed better because they had an inflated sense of ability.

“Most people have experienced a time in their lives when they aren’t performing up to their potential. They take a test or have a performance review at work, but something holds them back,”  lead researcher Sonia Kang, Ph.D. tells EurekAlert! “Performance in these situations is closely related to how we are expected to behave.”

When people don’t have high expectations of themselves, they’re more likely to meet those low expectations in reality, the study found.

“Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat,” says Kang.

The experiment indicates that both thinking and writing down self-affirmations can help, though writing them may be more effective.

But, in Chuckie’s case, saying them aloud helps too.

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