Medical Care

Self-Affirmation Takes the Sting Out of Hard-to-Hear Health Advice

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. However, self-affirmation can help you see otherwise threatening messages as valuable and self-relevant. That’s the finding of research led by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication and reported in the February 2015 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The study shows how the simple intervention of reflecting on values that are meaningful to you can open your brains to accept advice that is hard to hear.

A release from the university quotes lead author Emily Falk, director of the Communication Neuroscience Laboratory, as saying, “Self-affirmation involves reflecting on core values. 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.

On the other hand, 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. Past studies have shown that brain activity in VMPFC during health messages can predict behavior change better than people’s own intentions, and this study sheds new light on why. VMPFC is the brain region most commonly activated when participants think about themselves and when they ascribe value to ideas. The new results show that opening the brain in this way is a key pathway to behavior change.