A very simple exercise — self-affirmation — can open up people’s minds to behaviour change, a new study finds.
When given advice about how to change, people are often automatically defensive, trying to justify their current behaviour.
Messages about eating healthier, doing some exercise and all the rest may be rejected by stock defences, like not having enough time or energy.
Now, research has found that focusing on values that are personally important — such as helping a family member — can help people act on advice they might otherwise find too threatening.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, scanned people’s brains as they were given typical advice about exercise you might get from any doctor (Falk et al., 2015).
Before receiving the advice, though, some were led through a self-affirmation exercise, which simply involves thinking about what’s important to you — it could be family, work, religion or anything that has particular meaning.
The researchers were interested in activity in part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).
This area is involved in how we process self-relevant information.
All the participants — who were picked because they led sedentary lives — were followed for a week before and a month after they received health messages about getting some more exercise.
The results showed that people who were self-affirmed beforehand displayed more activity in the VMPFC, suggesting they had taken the advice to heart.
Not only that, but their activity levels over the next month did increase more than the group who were not self-affirmed.
Dr Emily Falk, who led the study, said:
“We were particularly interested in using self-affirmation to help people become more active because sedentary behavior is one of the biggest health threats faced by both Americans and people around the world
Our findings highlight that something as simple as reflecting on core values can fundamentally change the way our brains respond to the kinds of messages we encounter every day.
Over time, that makes the potential impact huge.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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