This week we read a recent collection of studies written by Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues (2013) about goal disengagement and self-affirmation. Usually self-affirmations are a good thing for us because they remind us that we are, as Stuart Smalley put it, "Good enough, smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like (us)!" Sometimes these affirmations can lead one to actually disengage from goals.
Vohs and colleagues reason that self-affirmation, in addition to making a person feel positive and of worth, also allows negative information to seep into one's thoughts unchallenged and without the normal defensive reactions that come along with it. As such, failure feedback is likely to impact an affirmed person more than an un-affirmed one. Thus, an affirmed person who faces information suggesting she or he is failing at goal pursuit will be more likely to disengage from that goal, rather than to stubbornly stick it out.
The collection of studies used to test this prediction used clever paradigm in which the participants were asked to complete a task framed as assessing some form of cognitive ability. One task asked that people move uncooked pieces of rice with chopsticks (participants averaged 2.4 rice pieces moved in 90s). The other task asked that people look at three words in order to find a fourth word linking them together (leash, walk, and park have dog in common).
Participants in the study were next asked to either affirm the self, by thinking about a core value that they believe in strongly and think is important, or as a control condition, to think of a non-core value. Following this affirmation manipulation, participants were asked to complete the cognitive ability task where that was further manipulated to be a sure success (e.g., move the rice with the chopsticks for fun) or to be a sure failure (e.g., moving the rice with the chopsticks is a valid measure of cognitive ability). Vohs and colleagues then measured performance expectations and actual performance.
Across studies, the researchers found that when the task was framed as a sure success, affirmed participants were actually more likely to have positive expectations for their performance and to perform better than un-affirmed participants. However, when framed as a sure failure, affirmed participants had lower expectations for performance and actually performed worse--both suggesting goal disengagement.
Overall the people in SWAG had some interesting thoughts about the paper. In particular, many from our group wondered if studying goals in the contexts of word association puzzles or moving rice with chopsticks can really be considered as a externally valid measure of goal pursuit, commitment, or persistence as it might be true that people simply don't care about these kinds of tasks. To this point, one member of SWAG suggested that the studies were "A satire of lab experiments." Possibly this research could apply to the kinds of goal-directed activities that people engage in for mundane and inconsequential goals--some of which we engage in often (e.g., finding all the items on a grocery list). Another comment concerned what precisely happens in a self-affirmation manipulation. When a person engages in self-affirmation, it is likely that they feel a host of inter-linked psychological experiences (e.g., increased self-esteem, self-compassion, positive affect, meaning in life, etc...) and it is a little bit unclear what of these inter-linked constructs is causing the goal disengagement. Perhaps this is a line of future research. Does feeling strongly about your core values make you disengage from goals?
Also, we performed some daily affirmations and ate cookies!
Vohs KD, Park JK, & Schmeichel BJ (2013). Self-affirmation can enable goal disengagement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104 (1), 14-27 PMID: 23106251