One of the most startlingly effective things I’ve seen in the psychology literature is the power of “self-affirmation.”

The name is a bit misleading. The “self-affirmation” described in these studies isn’t looking in the mirror and telling yourself you’re beautiful. It’s actually values affirmation — writing short essays about what’s important to you in life (things like “family”, “religion”, “art”) and why you value them. The standard control intervention is writing about why a value that’s not very important to you might be important to someone else.

Values affirmation has been found in many studies to significantly improve academic performance in “negatively stereotyped” groups (blacks, Hispanics, and women in STEM), and these effects are long-lasting, continuing up to a year after the last exercise.[1] Values affirmation causes about a 40% reduction in the black-white GPA gap, concentrated in the middle- and low-performing students.[4]

Values affirmation exercises reduce the cortisol response (cortisol is a “stress hormone”) in response to social stress tasks, as well as reducing self-reported stress.[2] Students assigned to a values-affirmation exercise did not have an increase in urinary epinephrine and norepinephrine (measures of sympathetic nervous system activity) in the weeks before an exam, while control students did.[5] People who have just done a self-affirmation exercise have less of an increase in heart rate in response to being insulted.[6]

A fifteen-minute values affirmation exercise continued to reduce (questionnaire-measured) relationship insecurity for four weeks after the initial exercise.[3]

The striking phenomenon is that a very short, seemingly minor intervention (spending 15 minutes on a writing task) seems to have quite long-lasting and dramatic effects.

There are lots and lots of studies pointing in this direction, and I haven’t looked in great depth into how sound their methodology is; I still consider it quite possible that this is a statistical fluke or result of publication bias. But it does seem to mesh well with a lot of ideas I’ve been considering over the years.

There is a kind of personal quality that has to do with _believing you are fit to make value judgments. _Believing that you are free to decide your own priorities in life; believing that you are generally competent to pursue your goals; believing that you are allowed to create a model of the world based on your own experiences and thoughts.

If you lack this quality, you will look to others to judge how worthy you are, and look to others to interpret the world for you, and you will generally be more anxious and more likely to unconsciously self-sabotage.

I think of this quality as being a free person or being sovereign. The psychological literature will often characterize it as “self-esteem”, but in popular language “self-esteem” is overloaded with “thinking you’re awesome”, which is different. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and nobody is wonderful in every way. Being sovereign doesn’t require you to think you’re perfect; it is the specific feeling that you are allowed to use your own mind.

What the self-affirmation literature seems to say is that this quality is incredibly important, _and _incredibly responsive to practice.

The stereotype threat literature in particular suggests that there is an enormous aggregate cost, in terms of damaged academic and work performance and probably health damage, due to the loss of a sense of sovereignty among people whom society stereotypes as inferior.

Put another way: being a “natural aristocrat”, in the sense of being a person who is confident in his right to think and decide and value, gives you superpowers. My intuition is that people become much, much smarter and more competent when they are “free.”

And if promoting psychological freedom is as easy as the self-affirmation literature suggests, then people interested in maximizing humanitarian benefit should be interested. Human cognitive enhancement is a multiplier on whatever good you want to do, just as economic growth is; it increases the total amount of resources at your disposal. Raising IQ seems to be hard, once you get past the low-hanging fruit like reducing lead exposure, but reducing stereotype threat seems to be much easier. I have a lot of uncertainty about “what is the most useful thing one can do for humanity”, but making saner, freer people arguably deserves a spot on the list of possibilities.

[1]Sherman, David K., et al. “Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104.4 (2013): 591.

[2]Creswell, J. David, et al. “Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses.” Psychological Science 16.11 (2005): 846-851.

[3]Stinson, Danu Anthony, et al. “Rewriting the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Social Rejection Self-Affirmation Improves Relational Security and Social Behavior up to 2 Months Later.” Psychological science 22.9 (2011): 1145-1149.

[4]Cohen, Geoffrey L., et al. “Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention.” science 313.5791 (2006): 1307-1310.

[5]Sherman, David K., et al. “Psychological vulnerability and stress: the effects of self-affirmation on sympathetic nervous system responses to naturalistic stressors.” Health Psychology 28.5 (2009): 554.

[6]Tang, David, and Brandon J. Schmeichel. “Self-affirmation facilitates cardiovascular recovery following interpersonal evaluation.” Biological psychology 104 (2015): 108-115.