The Psychology of the Affirmed Learner: Spontaneous Self-Affirmation in the Face of Stress

The Psychology of the Affirmed Learner: Spontaneous Self-Affirmation in the Face of Stress

By
Shannon T. Brady, Stephanie L. Reeves, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Jonathan E. Cook, Suzanne Taborsky-Barba, Sarah Tomasetti, Eden M. Davis, Geoffrey Lawrence Cohen
Journal of Educational Psychology. April
2016, Vol. 108, Issue 3, Pages 353-373

A key question about achievement motivation is how to maintain it over time and in the face of stress and adversity. The present research examines how a motivational process triggered by a social-psychological intervention propagates benefits over a long period of time and creates an enduring shift in the way people interpret subsequent adversity. During their first or second year of college, 183 Latino and White students completed either a values affirmation intervention or control exercise as part of a laboratory study. In the affirmation intervention, students wrote about a core personal value, an exercise that has been found in previous research to buffer minority students against the stress of being negatively stereotyped in school. This single affirmation improved the college grade point average (GPA) of Latino students over 2 years. Students were re-recruited for a follow-up session near the end of those 2 years. Results indicated that GPA benefits occurred, in part, because the affirmation shifted the way Latino students spontaneously responded to subsequent stressors. In particular, in response to an academic stressor salience task about their end-of-semester requirements, affirmed Latino students spontaneously generated more self-affirming and less self-threatening thoughts and feelings as assessed by an open-ended writing prompt. They also reported having a greater sense of their adequacy as assessed by measures of self-integrity, self-esteem, and hope, as well as higher academic belonging. Discussion centers on how and why motivational processes can trigger effects that persist over surprisingly long periods of time.