“Who’s the more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?”
–Obi Wan Kenobi
When I was a cadre member at West Point conducting training for the new plebes who had arrived for their introductory summer training, I had a couple of guys in my squad who started off well, but their performance tapered off as the summer wore on. I’m sure I did the same thing – assuming I performed well in the beginning, and, given my level of stress, my performance probably started off poorly and got worse – but I was so stressed that I don’t remember much at all. I don’t recall being a world beater while I was a plebe, and when my grandfather died during President’s Day weekend of my plebe year, I really wanted to quit.
After his funeral, I told my mother that I didn’t want to go back. She told me that my grandfather had been proud of me and was always sure I’d make it through West Point.
That statement got me to go back. I wanted to be a person of whom my grandfather could be proud, and not making it through would have meant disappointing him.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, another young person was struggling with the stresses of his life. Luke Skywalker finds out about his true heritage from Obi Wan Kenobi – that of a Jedi master – and initially refuses to join in the fight against Darth Vader until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle. During his training, Luke has to grow up a lot, and he gives in to his temper and emotions. Obi Wan Kenobi is a calming influence on him, convincing Luke to trust himself and his emotions and to channel them into positive energy to fight against the Empire.
Obi Wan Kenobi reminded Luke of who he was, what his heritage was, and what was truly important to him – fighting the Empire to avenge the deaths of his father, his uncle, and his aunt (bonus points quiz: who was Luke’s aunt? No cheating! First right answer in the comments wins!). When Obi Wan Kenobi helped Luke affirm who he was and what that focus in his life was, Luke was able to succeed.
Research from Carnegie Mellon’s J. David Creswell and others confirms Obi Wan Kenobi’s ancient wisdom (OK…it was 1977) about focusing on your values and affirming the importance of those values in defining who you are when you’re undergoing a lot of stress.
In their experiment, they took undergraduate students who had been chronically stressed over the past month and gave them a difficult word association puzzle – heaping more stress on them! The experimental group of students was then asked what their most important value was and why it was important to them. They were also asked if that value had influenced their lives or was important in defining who they were.
High stress students who were reminded of their values and affirmed the importance of those values to them performed better on the test than any other group. They performed significantly (in both a statistical and descriptive sense) better than their equally stressed but non-affirmed counterparts and better even than their unstressed peers. The unstressed peers who went through the self-affirmation exercise also did better, albeit not dramatically as much, as the unstressed test-takers who didn’t go through the self-affirmation.
Does this mean that you should try to put yourself in a long-term stressful situation so that you can get the most out of self-affirmation? Absolutely not. It’s not worth putting yourself through that sort of health risk just to get a bump in performance!
However, there are times when a little self-affirmation will work.