Sometimes people have thoughts and experiences that threaten their self-image. According to Claude Steele’s (1988) self-affirmation theory, when people’s self-image has been threatened they are motivated to affirm the integrity of the self. Moreover, people have a desire to restore their general self-image, not simply to resolve the specific threat. The unique prediction that self-affirmation theory makes is that people have a strong desire to maintain a positive self-image; therefore, when people experience a specific self-threat, they can overcome the unpleasant arousal associated with the threat by affirming an equally important, yet unrelated, aspect of the self. This can work to restore self-esteem even without resolving the specific threat.
Self-image threats can arise from several sources. One important source is when people hold inconsistent cognitions or engage in behaviors that are inconsistent with their beliefs. For example, some people fail to practice safe sex on a regular basis, although they are aware of the health risks associated with such actions. Likewise, some people do not drive energy efficient cars, although they profess to have positive attitudes toward environmental issues. When people hold two conflicting cognitions or when they behave in a way that is contrary to how they think they should act, they often experience an unpleasant psychological state that is referred to as cognitive dissonance. The inconsistency between one’s cognitions and behavior can be arousing and threatening to the self because it suggests that people are irrational, immoral, and even unintelligent.
According to cognitive dissonance theorists, people often try to reduce this unpleasant psychological state by engaging in one of three actions. First, people may attempt to change their behavior to make it more consistent with their cognition. For example, smokers can stop smoking. Second, people can attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance by changing their cognitions. Smokers, for example, can lower their perception of the health risks associated with smoking. Finally, people can attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance by adding new cognitions to their belief system. For example, smokers can focus on counterexamples to the health risk by focusing on people who smoke but have lived a very long life. Additionally, smokers may justify their behavior by emphasizing how much smoking reduces their stress level. These three basic ways of reducing cognitive dissonance involve changing beliefs and actions within the domain in which the self has been threatened. For example, in order to restore their self-regard, smokers must engage in some affirmation strategy that is directly relevant to smoking behavior. Self-affirmation theory, however, predicts something different. It states that when people experience a self-image threat after engaging in an undesirable behavior in one domain, they can restore their self-image by affirming another aspect of the self. As with the smoking example, smokers can restore their self-image by reminding themselves that they contribute to charities for impoverished children or that they have a lot of friends. In this example, contributing to charities or focusing on being well liked are unrelated to the domain of smoking and yet serve the function of making people feel good about themselves after a threat.
Threatening thoughts and experiences can also arise from the way people are treated or are perceived to be treated by other individuals. The perceptions and behaviors of other individuals can pose a threat to a person’s personal self-worth. For example, being accused of being uncooperative may threaten a person’s self-esteem because most people desire to appear cooperative. Additionally, other individuals’ perceptions and behaviors can pose a threat to a person’s collective self-worth. For example, being considered unintelligent because one is black may threaten a person’s collective self-esteem or sense of self as a member of a particular group. When people feel threatened because they sense that they are judged or treated in terms of social stereotypes or that they might do something that could inadvertently confirm the stereotype, they experience what Steele (1997) refers to as a stereotype threat. According to self-affirmation theory, when people experience a stereotype threat they can reaffirm the self even in a domain unrelated to the stereotyped domain. For example, an African American student who is stereotyped by his teacher as unintelligent can reaffirm the self by thinking about how great he is at negotiating interpersonal conflict.
Self affirmation theory suggests that there are many possible ways that people can protect their self esteem when it is under threat. Specific threats may come from inconsistencies in thoughts and behaviors that may lead to a state of cognitive dissonance or the presence or perceived presence of societal stereotypes of a particular group. Whatever the source, research has found that affirming an aspect of the self that may even be unrelated to the self threat is effective in making people feel good about themselves, at least in the short term.
SEE ALSO Cognitive Dissonance; Self-Esteem; Stereotype Threat
Steele, Claude M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 21, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 261–302. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Steele, Claude M. 1997. A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist 52: 613–629.
J. Nicole Shelton
Laura Smart Richman