Restoring Self-Worth Encourages Healthy Behaviors

Is there anyone who doesn’t already know that tobacco use is a bad idea? And yet …

Does anyone not know that smoking causes cancer and a host of other illnesses, and that it increases the risk of mortality?

More than 30 countries have adopted the World Health Organization’s campaign to encourage graphic warning labels on cigarette boxes. Still, more than a billion people smoke worldwide, according to new research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, citing WHO statistics.

Likewise, skin cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Yet fewer than 10 percent of Americans had annual skin cancer screenings between 2000 and 2005, according to the research, “Public Policy and Health: A Self-Affirmation Perspective.”

PIBBS cover
The Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, or FABBS, with SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, publishes the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. This annual journal features research findings in the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior that are applicable to nearly every area of public policy. The first issue comprises 33 articles in social and personality psychology focused on topics including health, education, justice, the environment, and inequality.
Why don’t people heed warning labels and other public health campaigns? Common reasons are that they deny the accuracy of the message or doubt it applies to them, according to the authors, Phillip J. Ehret and David K. Sherman of the University of California, Santa Barbara. People also may refuse tests that could force them to confront upsetting news.


As policy makers look for strategies to help people avoid resistance and choose healthy behaviors, the researchers cite one psychological intervention that has proven effective in pilot studies. It’s called self-affirmation, and it encourages people to focus on important personal values.

Through self-affirmation, people may be reminded of a promotion. Spending time with family or friends also can affirm one’s self-worth.

Behavioral change in itself can restore a sense of self-worth. But so can denial, the authors warn. Self-affirmation has been shown to encourage people to avoid the route of denial and instead choose the healthy behaviors.

Citing recent research, the authors discuss self-affirmation in the context of four health-policy domains: cigarette warning labels, community health programs, alcohol intervention and adherence to treatment regimens for people coping with disease.

Four Health-Policy Domains

In one referenced study, 59 percent of factory workers who completed an affirmation task before being shown a leaflet on suggestions for quitting smoking took the leaflet with them compared with 37 percent of workers who were not given an affirmation task.

In another study, participants at a soup kitchen completed either a verbal affirmation or a control task. As they left the kitchen, nearly 80 percent of those in the affirmed group who stopped to look at flyers on health benefit programs took a flyer. Just 36 percent of those in the control group who stopped to look left with a flyer.

College women who drink alcohol were more likely to express an interest in drinking less after completing an affirmation task before reading an article linking heavy drinking with breast cancer.

Studies also show that self-affirmation tends to motivate adherence to health warnings—in one example leading affirmed people at risk for diabetes to be more likely to engage in healthy behaviors.

Policy Implications

Self-affirmation may not be a “panacea” for healthy behaviors, the authors state.

But when targeted to the right audience and timed so that the person completes the affirmation intervention before confronting threatening material, self-affirmation can be what the authors describe as “a powerful tool” — not only to help people cope with disturbing information but also encourage them to change unhealthy behaviors.

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