In my post “The power of the sub-conscious-fact or fiction” I mentioned how our “sub-conscious” attempts to ensure that our thoughts and actions are congruent with our self concept, and how positive affirmations are believed to “reprogramme” the sub-conscious. Claude Steele’s “Self-Affirmation Theory” has been very influential in promoting the idea of positive thinking. Knowingly or not, many self help books ascribe to Steele’s theory.

Self-affirmation theory begins with the idea that we are motivated to maintain integrity of the self. When self integrity is threatened, we often respond with cognitive defensive strategies that reduce the influence of the threat (e.g. dismissing the information at hand). An alternative response is to affirm alternative sources of self integrity. However, the self affirmations that Steele and subsequent authors describe are not the kind many people think of (i.e. repeating “I’m wonderful” over and over). Moreover, some authors have cautioned against the careless use of “positive affirmations”. People with low self esteem are often harmed rather than healed when asked to use inappropriate affirmations (where they discount the affirmation as implausible). Focusing on positive experiences or aspects of the self are more appropriate, more generally (interestingly, one study has shown that affirming personal values can provide a buffer against stress).

But what about the idea that self affirmations can lead to positive future change? How does reflecting on past positive experience influence future behavior? Do affirmations related to future goals really work? While there are answers to these questions, the answers are complex in that there is overlap between different cognitive and neurological systems.

Affirmations (both retrospective and future focused) require that we tap into our memory banks. Memory retrieval is required for both retrospective affirmations and future thought. Simply remembering a positive experience results in the release of that “feel good” neurotransmitter, dopamine. Recent research suggests that the act of remembering leads to forgetting, and moreover there is much research on active forgetting. Past experiences that might interfere with an individual’s attempt to change his or her negative self image can be eradicated. Hence, retroactive affirmations are easier when traumatic memories have been “deleted”.

Moreover, I’ve talked previously about how fragile our memories are, and how we can concoct memories of events that did not take place. I believe that future focused affirmations have the potential to create “new memories” (read more here and here). Add to that some research that suggests that affirmations could become “addictive”. Just as recalling happy memories makes you feel happy, future focused positive affirmations also appear to make you happy.

I have just touched the surface. Neurological evidence for the many of the tenets of self-affirmation is mounting (recently the anterior cingulate cortex was linked to cognitive dissonance, one of the primary mechanisms underpinning self integrity). We no longer have to rely on theoretical psychological models. Neuroscience and neuroimaging research has begun to uncover the mechanisms behind these theoretical Exciting times.