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Applying Behavioral Sciences in the Real World

The Power of Affirmation

Guest Blogger: Crystal Hall, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, University of Washington

Stereotype Threat and Self-Affirmation

We all know what the word “stereotype” means. What some may not be familiar with are the effects of stereotyping when someone perceives that their self-worth is negatively evaluated against these preconceived notions. In psychology, this is known as stereotype threat.

Many studies have found that stereotype threats actually impair a person’s performance and ability to take certain actions. For example, consider the case of a female student, who has excelled at math and science, winning a scholarship to an elite university. Even though she has proven that the gender stereotype of females’ lower ability in the domains of math and science does not apply to her, she may still feel threatened when her gender (with its implicit negative stereotype) is made salient before taking a standardized math or science exam. In fact, a 2005 study by Steele and Ambady has shown that priming female mathematicians to focus on their gender before a test has a negative effect on their test performance.

Is it possible to overcome this stereotype threat that impairs a person’s ability? The answer is yes. A theory known as self-affirmation can offset some of the negative effects of the stereotype threat. Self-affirmation, or affirmation priming, helps individuals overcome the stresses and negative impact associated with negative stereotypes of the group to which they belong. Self-affirmation theory is based on the general premise that individuals are strongly motivated to protect their feelings of their own self-worth. Individuals may respond to the stereotype threat by using psychological adaptation of affirming alternative self-resources. For example, a female mathematician could draw on her rigorous educational background and her accomplishments in a short writing exercise to compensate for and decrease the stress she may feel when her gender identity is primed before a mathematics task she has to tackle.

Self-Affirmation Among Low-Income Populations

Inspired by the use of self-affirmation in an educational context, I wanted to explore how the use of a self-affirmation intervention can be used to influence decision making by low-income individuals. One stereotype that may be associated with being impoverished is the inability to manage one’s finances. Working with a soup kitchen in Trenton, New Jersey, I designed an experiment to test whether or not self-affirmation could increase take-up of a particular financial service. Like minority students in an academic setting, low-income individuals might face similar types of psychological threat associated with potential stereotyping. This would be further increased by approaching individuals in a decidedly low-income context (a soup kitchen), and might affect their willingness to show interest in a program or service geared at their demographic.

The Challenge

In the population we worked with, many individuals were not filing their taxes and therefore not receiving large rebates they might be entitled to, based on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Thus, I used willingness of individuals to receive information about the EITC and free volunteer income tax preparation as the behavior of interest.

The Experiment

In this experiment, I partnered with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. Patrons of the soup kitchen were recruited to participate after they completed their meal, and were randomly assigned to either a self-affirmation group or control group. Participants were asked to spend 3-5 minutes describing some personal experience, in private. However, the specific instructions depended on which group the participant was in. In the self-affirmation group, they received the following instructions:

Those in the control group read the following:

Participants in both groups then spent time privately describing their experience. After completing the task, all individuals were thanked for their participation and compensated with a small gift (and were led to believe that the study was over).

When they left, they were approached by a different individual who asked them to please stop to discuss their potential eligibility for the EITC. If the individual stopped, they were also offered information about the EITC and free tax preparation services to take with them (shown below). The rates of stopping and accepting the information were compared with those in the self-affirmation (experimental) group versus control group.

The Results

The results of this study showed that, while individuals in the self-affirmation group were not more likely to stop to chat with the second experimenter, those that did were significantly more likely to take the potentially financially beneficial information with them (36% versus 79%!).

The simple experience of reflecting on a personal accomplishment seems to have been enough to protect the participants from their psychological threat or discomfort related to talking about their financial insecurity.

Implications and Next Steps

The findings suggest that a simple psychological intervention could be a practical and cost-effective tool for policy makers and advocates to increase beneficial actions taken by individuals living in poverty. In addition, the results of the affirmation study suggest that lack of participation in benefits programs by low-income individuals may not be driven by factors such as lack of understanding or disinterest. It can in fact be a result of a psychological threat induced by the fact that low-income individuals are aware of the negative stereotypes associated with their group. This awareness may cause individuals to disengage when they might identify with this group, especially in the presence of an outgroup member (in this case, providers of a product or service geared at low-income populations).

This tax season, I worked with researchers Mindy Hernandez, Jiaying Zhao and Eldar Shafir to test self-affirmation among low-income individuals with a measure of real-world choices. The original study looked at potential intentions to claim the EITC, and we wanted to design a study to look at choices that would presumably have a more immediate and direct impact. Working with the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and participants at the free tax preparation sites they operate in the Philadelphia area, we conducted a study of choices made by individuals during their session with a tax preparer. The affirmation was very similar to the one used in the original study in Trenton, and the results will be available soon. We are looking at whether or not individual decisions to sign up for services that they have been pre-screened for (such as SCHIP, nutrition assistance) or the purchase of savings bonds are influenced by the self-affirmation intervention.

Overall, this work provides an additional set of strategies to consider when designing programs and policies aimed at the poor. By more effectively considering the world from the perspective of the poor and their self-image, policy makers and advocates for this group can be more effective in mobilizing collective resources used to aid this population. This study illustrates one example of how my research (and that of other behavioral researchers like me) is attempting to further both psychological theory and expand the notions and assumptions held by policymakers about this group.


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