A new discovery shows how a simple intervention—self-affirmation—can open our brains to accept advice that is hard to hear.
“Self-affirmation involves reflecting on core values,” explained Emily Falk, the study’s lead author and director of the Communication Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Has your doctor ever told you to get more exercise? Has your spouse ever suggested you eat healthier? Even though the advice comes from good intentions, most people feel defensive when confronted with suggestions that point out their weaknesses. Reflecting on values that bring us meaning can help people see otherwise threatening messages as valuable and self-relevant. “Our work shows that when people are affirmed, their brains process subsequent messages differently.”
Along with colleagues at Annenberg, the University of Michigan and the University of California Los Angeles, Falk and her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine a part of the brain involved in processing self-relevance called ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). The team examined activity in this region as sedentary adults were given the type of advice they might get from a doctor (e.g. – “People who sit less are at lower risk for certain diseases.”). Participants who were guided through a self-affirmation exercise before getting the health advice showed higher levels of activity in this key brain region during the health advice, and then went on to show a steeper decline in couch-potato-type sedentary behaviors in the month following the intervention. Those who were instructed to think about values that weren’t as important to them showed lower levels of activity in the key brain region during exposure to the health advice and maintained their original levels of sedentary behavior. The results are reported in the February 2 Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.