STRESS
May 1, 2015

When the Pressure Is On, Self-Affirmation Helps

We are more likely to choke when something really matters. Time to remind ourselves of our strengths.

When something is really important and you want to do your best, your nerves are more likely to get in the way. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which your negative expectations sabotage your best efforts.

Self affirmations can help you keep your worries in perspective and raise your performance, according to a recent study. It found that reviewing our positive qualities when confronted with a challenging situation can improve the outcome.

Reflect on things that you know are good about yourself. Anyone has the potential to do really well. It’s how you respond under pressure that makes [the] difference.

The study involved three experiments in which pairs of adults were put in situations requiring negotiation skills.

In the first experiment, designed to show the effect of pressure on performance, the paired individuals were assigned the roles of recruiter and job candidate. They were to engage in negotiations over salary and benefits. Half of the pairs were told that the exercise would accurately reflect their negotiation skills. The other half of the pairs were told the exercise was meant to teach them about negotiation and was not a reflection of their skills.

Potential employees in these pairs performed significantly better in negotiations when they were told the exercise was designed as a learning experience for them rather than an assessment of their skills.

In the other two experiments, pairs were assigned roles as buyer and seller of a biotechnology plant. In the first, the participants were simply told to negotiate the deal and it was observed that the sellers outperformed the buyers in terms of negotiation skills.

The final experiment used the same situation but half of the buyers were asked to warm-up by writing about their own most important negotiating skill for five minutes. The other half were told to write about their least important negotiating skill. Buyers who wrote about their most important skills were the best negotiators among all the buyers, as effective as the "sellers."

Kang’s message is clear: contemplation of one’s strengths prior to entering a high-pressure situation can boost performance. Writing down, or simply thinking about the skills you are bringing to the table, allows you to be your best.

“You should reflect on things that you know are good about yourself. Anyone has the potential to do really well. It’s how you respond under pressure that makes a key difference,” researcher Sonia Kang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.

Even thinking about strengths that aren’t directly related to the situation at hand can increase your confidence and improve performance, a good thing to keep in mind when life’s inevitable challenges call for negotiation.

The study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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