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Self-Affirmation Theory and the Science of Well-Being

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Social psychological self-affirmation research shows that value affirmations often boost adaptive functioning. Yet, such effects are under-recognized within the fields of well-being studies and positive psychology. This paper reviews self-affirmation theory and the principles by which self-affirmation is understood to facilitate resilient responses to self-threats. Next, it reviews research on the impact of self-affirmation on well-being, including feeling good and functioning well. The positive-activity model is employed to conceptualize self-affirmation as a well-being intervention and to underscore potential mediators and moderators of the relationship between self-affirmation and well-being. Future lines of investigation are outlined, including the role of self-affirmation within existing well-being interventions, the use of self-affirmation to enhance other well-being interventions, and the measurement of individual differences in trait self-affirmation in the prediction of well-being.
Self-Affirmation Theory and the Science of Well-Being
Andrew J. Howell
Published online: 11 January 2016
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
Abstract Social psychological self-affirmation research shows that value affirmations
often boost adaptive functioning. Yet, such effects are under-recognized within the fields
of well-being studies and positive psychology. This paper reviews self-affirmation theory
and the principles by which self-affirmation is understood to facilitate resilient responses to
self-threats. Next, it reviews research on the impact of self-affirmation on well-being,
including feeling good and functioning well. The positive-activity model is employed to
conceptualize self-affirmation as a well-being intervention and to underscore potential
mediators and moderators of the relationship between self-affirmation and well-being.
Future lines of investigation are outlined, including the role of self-affirmation within
existing well-being interventions, the use of self-affirmation to enhance other well-being
interventions, and the measurement of individual differences in trait self-affirmation in the
prediction of well-being.
Keywords Self-affirmation Resilience Well-being Positive psychology
People want to learn, grow, be healthy, and have rewarding relationships, but psy-
chological threat can impede their ability to do so. By helping people to situate
threats into a narrative of global adequacy, affirmations turn down the inner alarm of
psychological threat. Less encumbered, people can make better use of the
resources for performance and growth in their social environment, in their rela-
tionships, and in themselves. (Cohen and Sherman 2014, p. 354)
As suggested by Cohen and Sherman (2014), affirming an overall sense of personal
adequacy is a route through which we can remain resilient in the face of adverse experi-
ences. Moreover, responding to personal-setbacks by reminding ourselves about values,
&Andrew J. Howell
Department of Psychology, MacEwan University, Edmonton, AB T5J 2P2, Canada
J Happiness Stud (2017) 18:293–311
DOI 10.1007/s10902-016-9713-5
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... Moreover, in the past several years, findings have supported its potential in mental health improvement in high-risk populations [c.f. (9)(10)(11)]. Nevertheless, so far only a relatively few studies have directly focused on the effects of self-affirmation on mental health and well-being, and overall, the results are inconclusive. ...
... The present study builds on growing evidence [e.g., (9,(15)(16)(17); see also (10)] on the effects of implementation intention (II)based self-affirmation intervention on mental health outcomes, including its effectiveness evaluated in adults with psoriasis (11), a highly-stigmatized skin condition associated with elevated risk for depression, anxiety, and lower levels of well-being. Using a factorial design, this pre-registered study aimed to further investigate whether (1) body-related selfaffirming implementation intention (BS-AII), with augmented specificity of the intervention compared to general selfaffirming implementation intention (S-AII), would provide greater improvements in mental health outcomes for adults with psoriasis; and (2), whether the addition of a booster component would result in enhancing effectiveness-greater reduction in depression and anxiety and more increase of well-being at follow-up. ...
... If-Then Plans With Self-Affirming Cognitions as an Effective Means of Affirming the Self at Experiencing Psychological Threat Self-affirmation (3) is an act of reflecting upon one's cherished values, important relationships, positive traits, or recalling accomplishments to restore/sustain one's perception of adequacy. As shown in past research (5,6,10), it may be seen as a flexible process, executed through a variety of means, with a quite diffuse impact, can affect and promote more adaptive reactions in response to a variety of self-threats. Typically, researchers in this area ask participants to affirm their core values or positive personal characteristics using various written tasks [c.f. ...
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This study builds on growing evidence on implementation-intention-based self-affirmation intervention effects on mental health. Using a factorial design, this pre-registered study aimed to further investigate whether (1) strengthening the element of specificity within body-related self-affirming implementation intention (BS-AII) intervention compared to general self-affirming implementation intention (S-AII) would provide greater improvements in mental health outcomes for adults with psoriasis, and (2) whether the addition of a booster component would result in enhancing effectiveness at follow-up. A total of 306 adults with psoriasis were assessed for eligibility and 222 (aged 18–71 years) were randomized and received S-AII, BS-AII, or MGI (mere goal intention—control condition). Within each group, participants were again randomized to booster (B) or no-booster condition in a 3 × 2 factorial design, resulting in six groups: S-AII; S-AII + B; BS-AII; BS-AII + B; MGI; and MGI + B. Data were collected over three-time points, at baseline, 2 weeks post-intervention, and at 1-month later. Three primary outcomes were defined as a reduction of anxiety and depressive symptoms and enhancement of well-being. In terms of secondary outcomes, positive other- and self-directed feelings and also an emotional attitude toward the body were evaluated. To fully estimate intervention effects through intention-to-treat analysis, linear mixed models were used. A significant effect of time was observed, but no evidence of time-by-group interactions and no three-way interactions were detected. Exploratory analyses revealed two significant moderating effects of age and self-esteem, pointing to boundary conditions of the interventions. These findings offer to gain deeper insights on null (or negative) effects also reported in past works and highlight that self-affirmation interventions should be more thoroughly investigated and optimized before they can be broadly implemented in real-life contexts, especially to prevent backfiring and negative-enhancing effects.
... To date, positive effects of self-affirmations have been shown for a variety of contexts that are relevant for mental health and well-being (for a review, see Howell, 2017). Several studies have found that affirming core values upon threat broadens the perceived bases of self-worth (Critcher & Dunning, 2015), reduces anxiety, helps people to deal with stressful situations (Cohen & Sherman, 2014;Morgan & Atkin, 2016;Morgan & Harris, 2015;Sherman, 2013), and also increases self-directed (Lindsay & Creswell, 2014) and other-directed positive feelings, suggesting the mediating mechanisms of self-affirmation effects on mental well-being by positive affect (Crocker et al., 2008;Thomaes et al., 2012). ...
... From a theoretical standpoint, the research aimed to demonstrate that prompting people to self-affirm may help them attain significant improvement in mental health outcomes-both the decrease of negative outcomes in terms of depressive symptoms and the enhancement of positive outcomes in terms of well-being. Given that self-affirmation prompts people to reflect on their values, strengths, and/or social relations and experiences most important to them, it has been suggested that it may also encourage them to engage in activities that are congruent with those values-activities that are happiness-enhancing (boosting hedonic well-being) and/or reinforce vital aspects of eudaimonic well-being as positive relations with others, the fulfillment of psychological needs, and the experience of meaning and purpose in life (for a review, see Howell, 2017). Aligned with this reasoning, we adopted the conceptualization of well-being as involving both hedonic and eudaimonic aspects (cf. ...
... Nonetheless, it is also important to note that based on MCID indexes, the S-AII intervention resulted in a deterioration in approximately 10-14 percent of participants. These findings suggest a low level of person-activity fit for some individuals (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014; see also Howell, 2017) and/or that some important factors (e.g. personal, contextual, and/or processual) might not be well captured within the S-AII intervention, which results in limited effectiveness for some groups of people. ...
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Effective antiretroviral treatment has increased the life expectancy of people living with HIV, and currently, the challenges of prominent importance appear to be mental health issues. This preregistered study among adults living with HIV/AIDS investigated the effectiveness of a brief self‐affirmation intervention framed in terms of if–then plans (i.e. self‐affirming implementation intentions [S‐AII]) against both active and non‐active control conditions, forming non‐affirming implementation intentions and mere goal intentions, respectively. The primary outcomes were defined as a reduction of depressive symptoms and enhancement of well‐being, along with secondary outcomes as positive other‐ and self‐directed feelings. A total of 162 individuals were assessed for eligibility, and 130 (aged 18–74 years) were randomized to the study conditions. Intervention effects were estimated through intention‐to‐treat analysis, using linear mixed models. The S‐AII intervention yielded improvements in overall well‐being over 2 weeks (d = .23), primarily driven by positive changes in emotional (d = .24) and social (d = .30) dimensions of well‐being. There were no significant differences in depression or secondary outcomes. Based on a minimal clinically important difference index, the S‐AII intervention resulted in improvement in well‐being in approximately 40 percent of participants. Nevertheless, further systematic research is needed to optimize self‐affirmation‐interventions, before their application in real‐life contexts.
... Building from growing literature on beneficial effects of self-affirmation interventions (Cohen & Sherman, 2014;Dutcher et al., 2020;Howell, 2017;Sherman, 2013), this study tested whether encouraging to cultivate a sense of self as worthy, adequate, and efficacious can provide improvements on mental health indicators. The current research sought to address gaps in the literature on the applicability of self-affirmation theory and mental health implications of self-affirming among truly at-risk populations, with the burden of chronic disease, employing a robust RCT design with an active-control group and longer-term follow-up assessment. ...
... Based on prior evidence drawn from other populations (Cohen & Sherman, 2014;Howell, 2017), it was expected that S-AII would generate effects both in terms of reduction in negative mental health outcomes (i.e. depression and anxiety) and net benefits for overall well-being. ...
... From a theoretical standpoint, because self-affirmation prompts people to reflect on their values, strengths, and/or most important relationships, it may also encourage them to engage in activities that are congruent with those values †1activities that are happiness-enhancing (hedonic well-being) and/or reinforce vital aspects of eudaimonic wellbeing as embracing positive relations with others, fulfillment of psychological needs, and experience of meaning and purpose in life (Keyes, 1998(Keyes, , 2005Ryan & Deci, 2001;Ryff, 1989). To date, the small number of studies that directly investigated the effects on well-being has resulted in promising but mixed findings (Howell, 2017). Moreover, with notable exceptions, most affirmation interventions have been tested in student or non-clinical samples, with experimental manipulations of threat, rather than truly at-risk populations experiencing chronic and acute stressors. ...
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Background: There are relatively few studies to address mental health implications of self-affirming, especially across groups experiencing a chronic health condition. In this study, short- and longer-term effects of a brief self-affirmation intervention framed in terms of implementation intentions (if-then plans with self-affirming cognitions; S-AII) were evaluated against an active control group (non-affirming implementation intentions; N-AII), matched to the target condition, and mere goal intention condition (a non-active control) in adults with psoriasis. The three pre-registered primary outcomes captured depression, anxiety, and well-being. Methods: Adults with psoriasis (N = 175; Mage = 36.53, S.D. = 11.52) were randomized into S-AII, N-AII, or control. Participants' mental health outcomes were assessed prior to randomization (at baseline), at week 2 (post-intervention), and at a 1-month follow-up. Results: Linear mixed models were used and results were reported on the intention-to-treat principle. Analyses revealed that S-AII exerted significantly more improvement in the course of well-being (ds > 0.25), depressive symptoms (ds > −0.40), and anxiety (ds > −0.45) than the N-AII and control group at 2-week post-intervention. Though the differences between groups faded at 1-month follow-up, the within-group changes over time for S-AII in all mental health outcomes remained significant. Conclusions: Brief and low-intensity S-AII intervention exerted in the short-term a considerable impact on mental health outcomes. The S-AII shows promising results as a relevant public mental health strategy for enhancing well-being and reducing psychological distress. Future studies could consider whether these effects can be further enhanced with booster interventions.
... Since that time, the field of Positive Psychology has thrived, with thousands of studies on virtues, strengths, positive emotions, and positive communities and workplaces. We see this explosion of studies in reviews and meta-analyses on signature strengths and virtues (Schutte and Malouff, 2019), helping behavior (Lefevor et al., 2017), creativity (Acar et al., 2020), resilience (Liu et al., 2020), positive affect and broaden and build theory (Fredrickson, 2013), forgiveness (Wade et al., 2014), flow (Harris et al., 2021), gratitude (Boggiss et al., 2020), self-compassion (Wilson et al., 2019), passion (Pollack et al., 2020), mindfulness (Fjorback et al., 2011), hope (Griggs, 2017), optimism (Rozanski et al., 2019), meaning in life (Manco and Hamby, 2021), volunteering (Milbourn et al., 2018), positive forms of motivation (Ntoumanis et al., 2021), value affirmation (Howell, 2017), school-based positive interventions (Tejada-Gallardo et al., 2020), workplace positive interventions (Donaldson et al., 2019), and other forms of positive intervention (Carr et al., 2020). This research has led to a broadening of the definition of positive psychology itself, with theorists arguing that positive psychology needs to include both positive and negative constructs and needs to consider a wider number of methodologies and levels (e.g., group, culture, etc.; Lomas et al., 2021). ...
... Positive affect/broaden-and-build. Inducing positive affect to enhance exploration, socializing, skill development (Howell, 2017) ...
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Since 2000, research within positive psychology has exploded, as reflected in dozens of meta-analyses of different interventions and targeted processes, including strength spotting, positive affect, meaning in life, mindfulness, gratitude, hope, and passion. Frequently, researchers treat positive psychology processes of change as distinct from each other and unrelated to processes in clinical psychology. This paper presents a comprehensive framework for positive psychology processes that crosses theoretical orientation, links coherently to clinical psychology and its more dominantly “negative” processes, and supports practitioners in their efforts to personalize positive psychological interventions. We argue that a multi-dimensional and multi-level extended evolutionary approach can organize effective processes of change in psychosocial interventions, by focusing interventions on context-appropriate variation, selection, and retention of processes, arranged in terms of key biopsychosocial dimensions across psychological, biophysiological, and sociocultural levels of analysis. We review widely studied positive psychology constructs and programs and show how this evolutionary approach can readily accommodate them and provide a common language and framework for improving human and community flourishing. We conclude that Interventions should start with the person, not the protocol.
... These phrases are designed to help identify and reinforce one's core values (Steele, 1988;Sherman and Cohen, 2006). Regular self-affirmations have been shown to reduce negative emotions , moderate physiological responses to stressful situations (Creswell et al., 2005;Sherman et al., 2009), and increase self-efficacy expectations, positive affect (Howell, 2017), and academic achievement (Cohen et al., , 2009. ...
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This study investigated the effects of the 6 Minutes Journal (6MT), a commercial diary combining several positive psychology interventions, including gratitude, goal-setting, and self-affirmation exercises, on several mental health outcome measures. In a randomized controlled trial, university students (N = 157) were randomly assigned to one of two groups: 6MT (n = 77) and a wait list control group (n = 80). Participants in the intervention group were instructed to follow the instructions of the 6MT for 4 weeks. Participants in both groups completed measures of perceived stress, positive and negative affect, self-efficacy and resilience at baseline, after 2 (t1), and 4 (t2) weeks. We used path-analyses with autoregressive and cross-lagged effects to test our hypotheses of the effects of the 6MT. Participants in the intervention group reported decreased levels of perceived stress and negative affect, as well as increased levels of resilience and self-efficacy compared to the control group. Positive affect was not statistically significantly influenced. The data showed a statistically significant increased levels of self-efficacy and resilience only after 4 weeks, suggesting that changing these constructs needs more time. The 6-minute diary does not appear to make individuals fundamentally more positive. However, the intervention may have a protective function against negative influences on well-being.
... According to the self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988;Aronson et al., 1999) "people are motivated to maintain their individual`s sense of self-integrity, which could be described as a sense of global efficacy". In addition it is also related with the wellbeing (Howell, 2017). The self-affirmation theory also indicates that employees always motivated to retain their integrity. ...
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In today's business environment, management of employees of university setup has become one of the most challenging elements to consider. To sustain a competitive advantage, highly skilled employees who are perfectly aligned and motivated in the institute are essential. However, happiness becomes essential for these types of employees. Research on measuring the happiness and general wellbeing of faculty at university setup has become an important component for the management team when introducing new plans and future policies related to cultivating a positive teaching and learning environment. It is a well-established practice to measure the happiness of people of the country but use of happiness index to measure the happiness at work place in university setup is rare. In this study we have measured happiness amongst employees of the Ganpat University using the validated scale of employee happiness. The dimensions of employee happiness at the university are used as independent variables for explaining the employees' happiness with respect to their nature of work. Therefore, we have investigated the factors which are contributing in employee's happiness at a university, such as life satisfaction, interpersonal relationship, self-affirmation and physical and mental health. All the measures were taken from validated studies and found reliable. Survey approach was adapted using self-administered questionnaire to achieve the research objective. 362 participants were selected by convenient sampling technique. Data collected by personal (face to face) interview and online survey (email) method. Analysis included hypothesis testing regarding which constructs explains the most in defining employee happiness with the help of multiple regression and subsequent multivariate analysis. Research findings illustrate the important factors contributing in increasing employee happiness at work place. Findings also help the top management of the university in policy making. Specifically, for the Indian university, the concept is in infant stage so there is huge scope for further research in this knowledge domain.
Research into the benefits of community-based group singing, pertaining to positive wellbeing and Quality of Life is lacking. Additionally, no preferred theoretical framework exists for community singing-based interventions. For the present study, six members of a UK community choir were interviewed using a semi-structured interview approach. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was employed. Analysis produced superordinate themes of: Social Factors with key elements such as social bonds and group identity; Psychological Factors, highlighting self-efficacy, self-identity and positive emotions and Psychological Motivations for Joining the Group, including autonomy, change of life circumstance and seeking a new challenge. The style/method of the group, teaching, music and group leader, were shown to have an influence on perceived benefits of the singing group. A key product of this study beyond the evidenced benefits of group singing is the development of an intervention model that optimises wellbeing outcomes in community singing groups underpinned by psychological theory, findings from the wider literature and the results of this study.
Self‐affirmations—responding to self‐threatening information by reflecting on positive values or strengths—help to realign working self‐concept and may support adaptive coping and wellbeing. Little research has been undertaken on spontaneous self‐affirmations in response to everyday threats, and less has been undertaken on the relationships between spontaneous self‐affirmations, coping, and wellbeing. This study aimed to test both within‐ and between‐person relationships between spontaneous self‐affirmations, coping, and wellbeing, controlling for threat intensity and other outcomes. A repeated survey assessment design was adopted to achieve these aims. Outcome measures included approach coping, avoidance coping, positive affect, negative affect, and eudaimonic wellbeing. It was found that spontaneous self‐affirmations positively predicted approach coping and positive affect at both within‐ and between‐person levels, and eudaimonic wellbeing at the between‐person level. Overall, spontaneous self‐affirmations were positively associated with approach coping and aspects of wellbeing. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
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The Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement (ENHANCE) program, a 12-week intervention, effectively enhances subjective wellbeing and reduces negative symptoms. The current study tested an abbreviated 7-week version, ENHANCE-II, that may better fit the needs and schedules of some people. In a longitudinal study, participants (n = 51) took part in the self-study program and completed psychological assessments at baseline, posttest, and follow up (5 weeks). Multilevel models were used to analyze the data, with treatment group data from ENHANCE treated as the comparison. Analyses showed improvements in all four outcomes: life satisfaction (statistically significant), positive affect, negative affect, and depression. These effects were about half as strong as those in ENHANCE, but this effect reduction was partially attributable to low adherence. Effects were much stronger among participants who adhered to the program, especially for negative symptoms. Although there were no assessments at later intervals, the study suggests that ENHANCE-II intervention is likely beneficial for participants who need brief programs.
Positive psychology exploded into public consciousness ten years ago and has continued to capture attention around the world ever since. The movement promised to study positive human nature, using only the most rigorous scientific tools and theories. How well has this promise been fulfilled? This book evaluates the first decade of this fledgling field of study from the perspective of nearly every leading researcher in the field. Scholars in the areas of social, personality, clinical, biological, emotional, and applied psychology take stock of their fields, while bearing in mind the original manifesto and goals of the positive psychology movement. Chapters provide honest, critical evaluations of the flaws and untapped potential of these various fields of study. The chapters design the optimal future of positive psychology by addressing gaps, biases, and methodological limitations, and exploring exciting new questions.
This chapter considers four possible meanings of the "positive" in positive psychology: that positive psychology involves doing "positive science" (basic and applied research aimed at improving human life); that it involves assuming that human nature is inherently "good" as a theoretical tenet; that it involves merely appreciating formerly unappreciated but admirable aspects of human nature; and that it involves studying the positive rather than the negative extreme of particular topics (i.e. forgiveness, not revenge; elation, not depression). It suggests that positive psychology focus on "personality on up"; only there does the term "positive" make sense, because positive has meaning with reference to human experience. In contrast, positive physics, positive chemistry, or positive neuroscience make less sense as fields of study, except insofar as they benefit human experience and life. The chapter defends positive psychology against the individualistic bias critique by pointing out that truly positive individuality is also connected individuality, and that only the less admirable forms of Western individualism (materialism, narcissism, egocentrism) work against positive functioning at the relational and cultural levels.
Governments are using measures of subjective well-being in preference to more objective measures of social progress (e.g., gross domestic product), yet interventions to address well-being are often costly. The present study tests the ability of a brief psychological intervention based on self-affirmation theory (Steele in Advances in experimental social psychology, Academic Press, New York, 1988) to protect subjective well-being among a community sample likely to have diminished well-being (i.e., women aged 46 years and older, Inglehart in Int J Comp Sociol 43: 391-408, 2002. doi: 10.1177/002071520204300309). One hundred and forty women aged 46 years and older completed baseline measures of subjective well-being, interpersonal feelings and self-esteem at baseline before being randomized to a self-affirmation or control group. Subjective well-being, interpersonal feelings and self-esteem were assessed again at follow-up. Results showed that, controlling for baseline subjective well-being, the well-being of women who had self-affirmed was significantly higher at follow-up than those in the control condition. Affirming the self did not significantly influence interpersonal feelings or self-esteem, compared with the control condition. The findings suggest that a low-cost brief psychological intervention based on self-affirmation theory, with potentially large public health "reach," could be used to protect subjective well-being-a key aim of government policies.
Insofar as people organize information about and evaluations of important topics in connected and coherent systems, attitudes may be changed from within by enhancing the salience of information already present virtually within the person's belief system without communicating new information from outside sources. A cognitive positivity bias is predicted such that stimulus evaluation (e.g., self-esteem) is affected more by characteristics that the stimulus possesses than by ones it lacks. Experiment 1 tested relations between participants' momentary self-esteem and concurrently salient desirable(vs. undesirable) self-characteristics possessed (vs. lacked). Experiments 2 and 3 changed participants' self-esteem by using directed-thinking tasks to manipulate the salience of desirable (vs. undesirable) self-characteristics possessed (and, to a lesser extent, lacked).
Citizens complete a survey the day before a major election; a change in the survey items' grammatical structure increases turnout by 11 percentage points. People answer a single question; their romantic relationships improve over several weeks. At-risk students complete a 1-hour reading-and-writing exercise; their grades rise and their health improves for the next 3 years. Each statement may sound outlandishmore science fiction than science. Yet each represents the results of a recent study in psychological science (respectively, Bryan, Walton, Rogers, & Dweck, 2011; Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007, 2010; Walton & Cohen, 2011). These studies have shown, more than one might have thought, that specific psychological processes contribute to major social problems. These processes act as levers in complex systems that give rise to social problems. Precise interventions that alter themwhat I call wise interventionscan produce significant benefits and do so over time. What are wise interventions? How do they work? And how can they help solve social problems?
We present an "affirmation as perspective" model of how self-affirmations alleviate threat and defensiveness. Self-threats dominate the working self-concept, leading to a constricted self disproportionately influenced by the threat. Self-affirmations expand the size of the working self-concept, offering a broader perspective in which the threat appears more narrow and self-worth realigns with broader dispositional self-views (Experiment 1). Self-affirmed participants, relative to those not affirmed, indicated that threatened self-aspects were less all-defining of the self (although just as important), and this broader perspective on the threat mediated self-affirmation's reduction of defensiveness (Experiment 2). Finally, having participants complete a simple perspective exercise, which offered a broader perspective on the self without prompting affirmational thinking (Experiment 3a), reduced defensiveness in a manner equivalent to and redundant with a standard self-affirmation manipulation (Experiment 3b). The present model offers a unifying account for a wide variety of seemingly unrelated findings and mysteries in the self-affirmation literature.