How to Perform in a Clutch

In a vulnerable moment, it helps to reaffirm your personal values

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Life is full of vulnerable moments — occasions when we feel off-balance, unsure of ourselves and our abilities — and in these moments we are likely to perform less well than we might. Social psychologists have developed a simple activity, called a values affirmation, that can intervene in such situations to restore our sense of equilibrium. Here’s how it works: Make a list of the values that matter most to you, or for 10 minutes, write in-depth about a value that is central to your life. Perhaps it’s your close relationship with your family, or your skill with a camera or in the kitchen, or your strong religious faith. What matters is that it’s your value, your identity.

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It’s a quick and simple exercise, but numerous studies have shown that it can have tremendous effects. Some of the things a values affirmation can do:

1. Tamp down stress. A study led by psychologist Traci Mann of UCLA found that participants who affirmed their values had significantly lower cortisol responses to stress compared with control participants. “These findings suggest that reflecting on personal values can keep neuroendocrine and psychological responses to stress at low levels,” Mann and her coauthors write.

2. Strengthen willpower. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009, researchers found that affirming one’s values can replenish willpower when it’s been depleted by repeated acts of self-control. The researchers conclude: “Self-affirmation holds promise as a mental strategy that reduces the likelihood of self-control failure.”

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3. Increase openness. Joshua Correll of the University of Chicago found that a values-affirmation exercise allowed subjects in his study to objectively evaluate information that would otherwise evoke a defensive reaction. The participants became less biased in favor of their own position, and more discriminating in evaluating the strength or weakness of arguments made by others.

4. Improve accuracy. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2012, researcher Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto and his coauthors found that people who had affirmed their values were more receptive to negative feedback and better able to recognize and correct their own errors. “Self-affirmation produces large effects,” the researchers note. “Even a simple reminder of one’s core values reduces defensiveness against threatening information.”

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5. Close achievement gaps. Multiple studies by professor Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University and others have found that affirming one’s values raises the test scores of minority students, and of female students in science and math classes. A reminder of one’s core values seems to protect these students from “stereotype threat” — that is, concerns about their ability to succeed because of their gender or race.

Pretty impressive results from a simple intervention. And it makes me wonder: What would happen if were reminded of and affirmed in our values as part of everyday life at school and at work?