Self-Affirmation Theory - The Role of The Self in Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology - Eddie Harmon-Jones 2019

Self-Affirmation Theory
The Role of The Self in Dissonance

An Update and Appraisal

Joshua Aronson, Geoffrey Cohen, and Paul R. Nail

Because the main propositions of dissonance theory have been confirmed with sufficient regularity, there is not a great deal to be gained from further research in this area.


Uncharacteristically, time has proven Ned Jones (E. E. Jones, 1985) wrong. Dissonance theory is now more than 60 years old, and as the content of this volume demonstrates, there is much to be gained from researching dissonance phenomena. Moreover, it is clear that the reports by Jones and others of waning interest in the theory were premature. This volume attests to the considerable research activity that has repopulated the journals with dissonance studies. In a computer search on PsycINFO, we found 68 journal articles published between 1991 and 1996 explicitly focusing on dissonance theory, a healthy increase from the 38 articles published between 1985 and 1990.

In this chapter, we discuss self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988),1 a theoretical development that we see as a major force in sparking the resurgent interest and progress in the study of dissonance processes. Although it is a broad theory, addressing self-esteem maintenance processes underlying an array of phenomena, a good deal of the published research on self-affirmation theory has sought to provide alternative explanations for dissonance effects. We do not argue that self-affirmation theory is a more correct statement about human thought and action than Festinger’s original theory (see Steele, 1988, Steele & Spencer, 1992; Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993) or than other revisions of the theory (e.g., Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). Instead, we hope to show that the self-affirmation perspective is particularly valuable in the way that Festinger s original formulation was valuable—in its simplicity, scope, and richness as a source of new, interesting, and testable hypotheses. In addition to celebrating its progress, we discuss a few of the challenges posed to the theory by recent data on the role of the self-concept in dissonance phenomena.


According to self-affirmation theory, thought and action are guided by a strong motivation to maintain an overall self-image of moral and adaptive adequacy. We want to see ourselves as good, capable, and able to predict and control outcomes in areas that matter. Awareness of information that threatens this image motivates us to restore it to a state of integrity. Like dissonance motivation, the self-affirmation drive can be strong or weak, depending on the size of the threat to the self-image. But because the objective is global self-worth and not cognitive consistency, we have tremendous flexibility in satisfying the need to restore a sense of general goodness. Self-worth derives from many resources, the myriad self-conceptions that are hypothesized to constitute a larger self-system. Thus, the larger self can be reaffirmed by thought or action addressed to one or more of these self-resources. So long as the affirming self-conception is important enough, this manner of restoring feelings of self-integrity can obviate the need to resolve the provoking inconsistency or threat, because “it is the war, not the battle, that orients this [self] system” (Steele, 1988, p. 289). For instance, a person does not have to rationalize a regrettable decision at work if his or her global sense of self-worth is secured by being a good parent or community member. Nor do cigarette smokers need to deny the risks of their self-incriminating habit if they can find other ways to bolster the global self, say, by affirming their capacities and worth in the workplace.

On the basis of this logic, Steele and Liu (1983) predicted that people would have no problem tolerating cognitive inconsistency in a forced-compliance paradigm, provided that the experimental procedure gave them the opportunity to affirm some important feature of the self—in this case, a cherished value. Students wrote essays in favor of a large tuition increase at their university. Immediately after writing the essay but before a measure of their attitudes, some participants were reminded of an important aspect of their self-concept by completing an aesthetic-values scale (value-oriented participants). Other participants went through the same procedure, but they were chosen for the study because aesthetic values were unimportant to them (non-value-oriented participants). As predicted, filling out the values scale eliminated dissonance—there was no attitude change in the direction of the essay—but only among value-oriented participants. According to Steele and Liu, these findings support self-affirmation theory over Festinger’s (1957) consistency-based explanation because completing the values scale did nothing to reduce attitude—behavior inconsistency, yet the values-oriented participants showed no need to rationalize their behavior. In subsequent studies, “value affirmation” also has been shown to reduce rationalizing in the free-choice paradigm (Steele, Hopp, & Gonzales, [cited in Steele, 1988]).

In more recent work, Steele and his colleagues (Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993) carried the self-affirmation logic a step further, to make an additional prediction about the role of dispositional self-esteem in dissonance processes. People with high self-esteem, they argued, should be less inclined to rationalize in dissonance-inducing situations than people with low self-esteem. Why? Because people with high self-esteem presumably have more internal resources, that is, more favorable self-concepts, with which to affirm away the self-esteem threat inherent in the dissonance-arousing episode. The simple version of this hypothesis was not supported in Steele et al.’s research. That is, people with high self-esteem were no less likely to rationalize in a standard dissonance procedure than people with low self-esteem. But the hypothesis was confirmed if just before the dissonance manipulation, participants’ self-concepts were made salient by having them complete a self-esteem measure. In this scenario, only low-self-esteem individuals rationalized, whereas their high-self-esteem counterparts showed no evidence of rationalization. This last finding provides strong support for the resource model of dissonance reduction.

The student of dissonance theory may note that the results of the Steele et al. (1993) study fly in the face of the self-consistency reformulation of dissonance (see Chapter 7, this volume). Like self-affirmation theory, the self-consistency model sees dissonance as mediated by the ego and not in a freestanding need for cognitive consistency (see Greenwald & Ronis, 1978, p. 55). However, unlike the self-affirmation model, the self-consistency model still puts the need for consistency at the heart of dissonance. In this view, a given cognition arouses dissonance because it is inconsistent with a self-concept—people experience dissonance because they perceive an inconsistency between a behavior (e.g., writing a counterattitudinal essay) and a valued self-concept (being an honest person; see Chapter 7, this volume, for a complete discussion). Thus, self-affirmation and self-consistency theories make opposite predictions with regard to whether low- or high-self-esteem individuals will be more likely to rationalize a dissonant action. Self-affirmation theory predicts that low-self-esteem individuals will rationalize more, because they have fewer esteem-saving resources with which to counter a threatening inconsistency. By contrast, self-consistency theory predicts that high self-esteem individuals will rationalize more, because their positive self-concept will be more inconsistent with the dissonant act. Thus, the Steele et al. (1993) finding that people with low self-esteem rationalize more than those with high self-esteem is an important theoretical advance—both for dissonance theory and for the study of the role of the self-concept in social cognition.


Do We Need a New Theory?

Notwithstanding the impressive support for self-affirmation theory provided by Steele and his colleagues (e.g., Steele & Liu, 1983; Steele et al., 1993) and others (e.g., Tesser & Cornell, 1991), some dissonance theorists have questioned the need for a new and separate theory to explain the results of self-affirmation studies (e.g., Beauvois & Joule, 1996; Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992; Chapter 7, this volume). For example, Thibodeau and Aronson (1992) remind us that one of Festinger’s (1957) hypothesized modes of dissonance reduction is adding new, consonant cognitions to the dissonant elements. Presumably these cognitions are postulated to reduce dissonance because the magnitude of dissonance is defined by the ratio of dissonant elements to dissonant plus consonant elements [D/(D + C)]. Thibodeau and Aronson asserted that once participants’ central values have been affirmed, they have little need for attitude change because affirmation reminds them of valued, self-relevant cognitive elements that are consonant with a positive self-concept. Once these consonant elements are added to the dissonance equation, the magnitude of dissonance is reduced. Thus, the self-affirmation findings, one could argue, can be readily accommodated by the original dissonance formulation.

However, the strong version of this argument is challenged by the results of Steele et al. (1993), which suggest that reminding people of their self-concepts not only alleviates rationalization among high-self-esteem individuals but also tends to exacerbate it among low-self-esteem individuals. Thibodeau and Aronson (1992) have predicted the opposite with regard to low-self-esteem participants. Among these participants, completing the self-esteem scale decreased the magnitude of dissonance by reducing the number of cognitions consonant with a positive self-image. In any event, one strategy to illuminate this theoretical tension is to examine whether an irrelevant esteem threat increases or decreases rationalization in a dissonance paradigm. An increase would support the resources model; a decrease would support the original consistency formulation. To our knowledge, no direct test of this question exists.

In a slightly different vein, Simon et al. (1995) have proposed that self-affirmation interventions may eliminate the need for dissonance reduction not because they restore one’s self-image, but because they establish a trivializing frame of reference whereby the relative importance of dissonant elements is reduced. One of Festinger’s (1957) proposed methods of dissonance reduction was to decrease the importance of dissonant cognitions. Simon et al. found that reminding participants of a generally important issue (e.g., world hunger) after counterattitudinal behavior eliminated the need for dissonance reduction. This occurred regardless of the issue’s personal importance to the participants. This finding contradicts self-affirmation theory because, by definition, an issue cannot be self-affirming unless it is of high personal importance.

Effects of Dispositional Self-Esteem

Another theoretical problem concerns the data discussed regarding the resources model and the role of self-esteem. As noted, the self-esteem differences predicted by self-affirmation theory emerge only when steps are taken to remind participants of their resources. When people are made mindful of their resources, the model works. But some evidence by Stone and his colleagues (see Stone, 1999) suggests a new twist. This research showed that people with high self-esteem actually rationalize more than people with low self-esteem if the self is brought on-line after dissonance has been aroused—in direct opposition to the resources model. When self-focus precedes the dissonance-arousing act, the self-affirmation resources model is supported; when self-focus follows the dissonance manipulation, the self-consistency model holds.

Moreover, some studies have shown that self-affirmation, under certain circumstances, can backfire—that positive feedback can increase rationalization if it focuses attention onto the domain threatened by dissonant behavior (J. Aronson, Blanton, & Cooper, 1995; Blanton, Cooper, Skurnik, & Aronson, 1997). For example, Blanton et al. had college students write dissonant essays arguing against increased university funding to help students with disabilities, a topic designed to impugn the essay writer’s self-image as compassionate. After writing the essay, participants received feedback from a bogus personality test they had taken earlier. In one condition of the experiment, the feedback extolled the essay writer’s compassion (thus, it was relevant to the uncompassionate essay the participant had written); in the other condition, the feedback praised the participant’s creativity (irrelevant feedback). After reading the feedback, participants’ attitudes toward the funding issue were assessed. The results showed that relevant affirmations—affirming the writers’ compassion after the noncompassionate act—exacerbated dissonance, causing them to change their attitude in the direction of the essay more than participants who received no affirmation. In the irrelevant-feedback condition, there was no such rationalizing attitude change. Clearly, then, there are some constraints on the self-affirmation process; it appears that to reduce dissonance, the affirmation may need to be irrelevant rather than relevant to the dissonance-arousing act.

It is unclear what this research implies for dissonance reduction in the real world, where no one else may be around to focus a person on his or her resources—relevant or irrelevant, before or after the fact. Outside of the laboratory, does high self-esteem lead to less rationalizing? A recent study by Gibbons, Eggleston, and Benthin (1997) suggests not. Gibbons et al. looked at the rationalizations of nonsmokers who fell off the wagon and started smoking again. Contrary to self-affirmation predictions, it was the high-self-esteem relapsers who were most likely to rationalize their renewed habit by denying the risks of smoking. The relapsers with low self-esteem behaved as self-consistency theory would predict: They seemed to accept their failure as befitting their low self-image.

What can be made of the difficulty in making clear predictions about the role of dispositional self-esteem and dissonance or, more specifically, of results suggesting that affirmations sometimes reduce but at other times exacerbate dissonance? What can dissonance theorists conclude about the relative merits of self-affirmation theory and more conventional self-consistency theories? The self-image may at times serve as a standard of conduct, evoking dissonance when behavior fails to meet this standard. And at other times, the self-concept may serve as a resource, replenishing self-worth in the wake of a threat. Various factors (such as the relevance and timing of the affirmation) will influence whether the self functions as a standard or resource.

In support of this argument, one study examined whether people avoid affirmations that are relevant to a dissonance-arousing act (J. Aronson et al., 1995). J. Aronson et al. reasoned that relevant affirmations provide a threatening reminder of one’s failure to live up to a valued standard of conduct. Accordingly, after behaving in an uncompassionate manner, people were found to eschew personality-test feedback that extolled their compassion. Although such feedback was flattering, it nonetheless was threatening, because it reminded participants that they had violated their usual standards of compassionate behavior, and it thus intensified the dissonance induced by their earlier unsympathetic actions.

Thus, positive self-conceptions can function both as resources (as in Steele et al., 1993) and as standards of conduct (as in J. Aronson et al., 1995), depending on the particulars of the situation. As the Stone, Cooper, Galinsky, and Kelly (1997) research demonstrates, the timing of an affirmation, like its relevance, may also be an important determinant of when a self-concept will function as an affirmational resource. There are undoubtedly other factors—such as the severity of the threat presented in the experiment—that must matter a great deal. The effect of self-image motivations on thought and behavior depends on several factors, and neither self-affirmation nor self-consistency offers a complete picture of the complex and manifold ways in which people regulate to their self-concepts. A straightforward calculus of the amount of dissonance from the number of positive self-conceptions may be impossible given the importance of the situation in determining whether a particular self-conception will be a source of pride or shame.

This last point raises a broader critique of dissonance research. Many investigators presume, either explicitly or implicitly, a general, universal, invariant process underlying all cognitive dissonance phenomena. This is a delusion; the form of the process, we believe, will depend on the specifics of the situation. Accordingly, the preconditions for dissonance will vary across contexts; sometimes freely chosen decisions whose outcomes are aversive will be necessary (Cooper & Fazio, 1984), and sometimes they will not be necessary (Thibodeau & E. Aronson, 1992; Harmon-Jones, 1999). There may be situational regularities common to dissonance phenomena, such as the perception of self-threat. But the process that creates this threat, and the strategies people deploy for reducing it, will vary a great deal depending on the nature of the situation. The delusion of a single pristine and precise mental process fuels much research both in the dissonance tradition and in other areas of psychological inquiry. It derives from an implicit assumption in general psychology that there is an abstract central processing unit (CPU) called mind, and that it is the task of researchers to discern its properties and algorithms with more and more precise laboratory methods (Shweder, 1991). Because the goal is understanding the nature of this disembedded, context-free CPU, researchers assume that they can stick to one paradigm and through systematic variations on this paradigm, they will eventually divine the exact nature of the universal psychological processes—the fundamental laws—underlying psychological phenomena, in this case, cognitive dissonance phenomena. It is assumed that these processes will apply to all situations everywhere. But a great deal of evidence has accumulated suggesting that the nature of the psychological process depends on the content of the situation—a critique made time and again by researchers in cultural psychology (e.g., Shweder, 1991).


Cognitive dissonance theory was inspiring in part because it encompassed so many different phenomena. It gave a way of understanding and talking about a vast array of human behavior with a relatively simple construct. For example, it could explain patterns of rumor transmission after catastrophes (Festinger, 1957) or the behavior of cultists (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956). It helped us understand why people come to love the things they suffer for (E. Aronson & Mills, 1959) and hate the people they inflict suffering on (Glass, 1964). It offered useful techniques for parenting, for example, how to get children to learn to like their vegetables (Brehm, 1959), or how to get them to dislike a forbidden toy (E. Aronson & Carlsmith, 1962). Other topics within dissonance’s explanatory purview included defensive projection (Bramel, 1962), consumer behavior (Doob, Carlsmith, Freedman, Landauer, & Tom, 1969), and the treatment of phobias (Cooper, 1980) and obesity (Axsom & Cooper, 1985). In short, it was synthetic rather than analytic. That is, it opened doors to new and unthought-of manifestations of a process rather than cautiously describing the boundary conditions of a theoretical process. Perhaps spurred by theoretical critiques (e.g., Bem, 1967) and the rise of the cognitive approach, dissonance research became more and more analytic and less and less synthetic (Berkowitz & Devine, 1989).

One downside of the analytic approach has been that theory testing tends to limit itself to one or two paradigms, leading to the mistaken idea that a theory largely applies to processes occurring in those paradigms. In the case of dissonance theory, most of the studies conducted after the early 1970s used the induced-compliance paradigm, a state of affairs that created the false impression that dissonance theory was mostly about what happened to people’s attitudes after being induced to contradict those attitudes by writing an essay that argued against one’s true beliefs. For example, Cooper and Fazio’s (1984) reformulation of dissonance theory refers exclusively to the studies using the induced-compliance paradigm, focusing on the necessary preconditions for creating sufficient dissonance to induce attitude change (e.g., foreseeable, aversive consequences). Gone was dissonance theory’s enormous scope.

Self-affirmation theory has had tremendous value in moving the study of dissonance—or at least dissonance-like—phenomena in the direction of synthesis and in uncovering new areas in which self-image maintenance affects beliefs and behavior. Self-affirmation theory provides a theoretical framework that like Festinger’s original theory, captures many disparate phenomena with a single, compelling formulation. Unfettered by the excess baggage that the definition of dissonance has picked up in the last six decades and equipped with new methodological techniques derived from the dissonance-as-self-threat perspective, self-affirmation theory is reexamining some old terrain with a fresh perspective. Below, we offer a few examples of recent research derived from the logic of self-affirmation theory. Note that very little if any of the hypotheses could have been derived from the version of dissonance that was predominant when Jones (1985) declared that dissonance had ceased to bear fruit. Note also the return of motivation to phenomena, like prejudice and inferential biases, that for the past few decades have been understood from a primarily cognitive perspective. Self-affirmation theory offers both a conceptual framework and a methodological technique for demonstrating the influence of motivation on cognition and behavior.

Self-Affirmation and Prejudice

Reasoning that people make themselves feel better about themselves by putting down members of socially devalued groups, Fein and Spencer (1997) asked whether affirming people’s self-concepts might reduce their tendency to evaluate members of stereotyped groups negatively. Participants in their study evaluated a job candidate who, by manipulating her last name and showing her with or without a Star of David or a Crucifix, was either presented as a member of a negatively stereotyped group (a “Jewish-American princess”) or was not (an Italian-American woman). Despite having identical credentials, the Jewish woman received significantly lower ratings than the Italian-American woman when evaluated by participants asked to rate her personality. However, half of Fein and Spencer’s participants were given the opportunity to affirm their self-concepts by writing about an important value (e.g., art, music, or theater). These affirmed participants were not influenced by the stereotype, that is, they did not give negative ratings to the Jewish woman; they saw her as just as nice, honest, and intelligent, as when she was portrayed as Italian American.

In a subsequent study, Fein and Spencer (1997) showed that threatening people’s self-esteem by giving them negative feedback on a bogus test of intelligence increased their prejudiced reactions to a stereotype target, in this case, a presumably gay man. The negative feedback had no effect on their evaluations of the same person when he was not presented as gay. This work is the first empirical demonstration of the motivational forces underlying prejudice: It suggests that negative stereotypes provide a “cognitively justifiable” means to bolster self-regard.

Self-Affirmation and Health

Drawing from the increased awareness of the link between stress and physical illness, Keough and colleagues (Keough, 1997; Garcia & Steele, 1997) reasoned that the net effect of one’s daily self-esteem threats could be reduced health. Drawing from the work on self-affirmation theory, they tested this notion by affirming a group of undergraduate students over a period of time and then comparing their health (as measured by a number of self-report instruments) to a control group of unaffirmed students. Specifically, during an academic vacation, affirmed students wrote about their daily experiences and about their feelings about those experiences with regard to a centrally important personal value. The results showed that compared with two other writing control conditions, those who completed the affirmation assignments were physically healthier at the end of the vacation than those who wrote about things that made them feel good or about their friends’ activities. This research ruled out other, more conventional explanations (such as mood effects or the importance of positive thoughts) and suggested that it was the unique exercise of integrating daily experiences into a personally important value, rather than simply reflecting on happy events, that improved health.

Biases in Persuasion and Negotiation

People with strong beliefs on a topic tend to cling to their attitudes in the face of ambiguous and even well-reasoned disconfirming information. They tend also to see people who espouse opposing views as misguided. This tendency has typically compelled nonmotivational explanations (e.g., Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979). Cohen, Aronson, and Steele (1997) wondered if part of the reason that people dig in their heels and refuse to change their minds is because it is self-threatening—or dissonant—to do so, because these opinions are self-defining. The hypothesis was straightforward. Partisans of a particular belief (e.g., advocates of the abortion issue or opponents and proponents of capital punishment) would be more open to arguments against their position if they were given an affirmation of an alternative source of identity or self-worth. In a series of studies, this hypothesis was supported. In one study, opponents and proponents of capital punishment were more persuaded by an article impugning their views when, before reading the article, they were given a self-affirmation in the form of positive feedback on their social perceptiveness skills. Self-affirmed partisans also were less likely to dismiss advocates of opposing views as political extremists, and they even became more critical in their evaluation of evidence that confirmed their own pre-existing beliefs. In another study, a self-affirmation procedure reduced people’s tendency to engage in “reactive devaluation”—the problematic impulse of negotiators to derogate a concession that has been offered relative to one that has been withheld (Atkins, Ward, & Lepper, 1997). Other research has revealed that self-affirmation reduces biased processing of potentially threatening information in a variety of domains including potentially threatening health information (Sherman & Cohen, 2006). Moreover, self-affirmation has been found to increase healthy intentions and behaviors, presumably because of the reduction in biased processing of potentially threatening information (Sweeney & Moyer, 2015). Although an extension of self-affirmation theory, this research also begins to resolve classic issues in social psychology regarding the effect of motivational forces on cognitive biases (see also Dunning, Leuenberger, & Sherman, 1995; Kunda, 1987).

Self-Affirmation and the Academic Underperformance of Black Students

The underperformance of Blacks on standardized tests and in school has been explained in terms ranging from the sociological disadvantage (Bereiter & Engelmann, 1966) to genetic differences in intelligence (e.g., Benbow & Stanley, 1980; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Jensen, 1969). Noting the insufficiency of these explanations, Steele and his colleagues (J. Aronson, Quinn, & Spencer, 1997; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1997; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995) drew on self-affirmation logic to offer a new explanation. They hypothesized that being the target of a negative stereotype (e.g., “Black people are unintelligent”) in a situation where that stereotype is relevant (e.g., taking a test of intelligence) functioned as a self-threat, with some of the same arousal properties. They further reasoned that the underperformance of Blacks (and of women in mathematics) might be due in part to the extra test anxiety brought on by this sense of “stereotype threat.” In one series of studies testing this reasoning (Steele & Aronson, 1995), Black and White college students were given a difficult standardized test (the Verbal Ability subscale of the Graduate Record Examinations) under conditions designed to either eliminate or exacerbate this stereotype threat. When stereotype threat was increased by underscoring the evaluative nature of the test, the Black students performed much worse than the White students. But when stereotype threat was minimized by introducing the same test as nonevaluative, the Black students performed just as well as the White students.

Despite the fact that the stereotype-threat situation bears no resemblance to a traditional dissonance—self-affirmation paradigm, thinking about the test-taking situation in those terms has been extremely useful. In a recent study (J. Aronson & Damiani, 1997), we tested whether self-affirmations could mitigate the underperformance engendered by the stereotype threat. In essence, we asked if being reminded of one’s general sense of goodness could protect one from the threatening and performance-disruptive implications of a negative stereotype about one’s intellectual abilities. Could we help a Black test taker to perform better by affirming him or her in some valued domain of the self-concept? To find out, we replicated the Steele and Aronson (1995) procedure described above. But in this experiment, half of the test takers received a self-affirmation just before starting the test. For one group, the affirmation was relevant: We affirmed their verbal skills. The other two groups received an irrelevant affirmation (of either their social skills or their ethnic identity). The results were very clear. The only affirmation that benefited the test takers was the affirmation of their verbal skills. Relevance, in this instance, buffered participants against a self-threat.

Self-Affirmation and the Effect of Positive Role Models

Reading through the literature on academic underperformance, one frequently confronts the role model argument: Why do Black and Latino students fail to do as well as White students in school? One explanation is that they lack adequate Black and Latino role models, who demonstrate, by example, that people of their race can succeed in academics. This argument also surfaces frequently during discussions of affirmative action. But despite the intuitive appeal of this argument, evidence that the presence of minority role models improves the outcomes of minority students is hard to come by. It is not at all clear, for example, that on integrated college campuses, there is a correlation between the number of Black professors and the academic performance of the Black student body (J. Aronson & Disko, 1997).

In a recent study, we (J. Aronson & Disko, 1997) examined the hypothesis, derived from self-affirmation theory, that role models can actually be threatening if they excel in domains where a person feels threatened. As a result, we may denigrate rather than identify with such role models. To test this reasoning, we gave students a test of either their verbal skills or their hand-eye coordination skills. Regardless of experimental condition, the students were made to feel that they had performed poorly on the test. Later, in the context of a supposedly unrelated survey, we told students that we needed their help in putting together some interventions aimed at motivating high school students to excel in academics. Specifically, we asked them to rate the suitability of various role models who could be used as spokespeople for this cause. The list of role models they rated came from various walks of life: famous scientists, athletes, politicians, writers, and so on. Our key hypothesis centered on the ratings of the writers on our list (e.g., Stephen King and Anne Rice) because they represented the category of people with excellent verbal skills, the same skills that half of our participants were presumably doubting because of their failure in the first part of the study. As predicted, the participants in the verbal-skills-failure condition gave much more negative ratings to the writers than they did to the other role model candidates. This pattern of role model bashing did not occur for participants in the hand-eye-coordination condition. This study, we believe, helps to explain why the mere presence of positive role models may not be enough. Students may feel threatened, rather than inspired, by excellent role models, especially in domains where they feel under suspicion.

Self-Concept Change Through Disidentification

One additional advantage of the self-affirmation approach is that it considers the self as an element in the dissonance process. Because the self is an element, changing one’s self-concept may be an effective means to reduce dissonance. According to this reasoning, when one’s behavior or performance in a domain casts a negative light on oneself, one can maintain global self-esteem by disidentifying with the domain in question. For example, we (J. Aronson & Fried, 1997) have found that Blacks with relatively low academic performance in school cope by making academics less important to their self-concepts, that is, they rationalize their lower achievement by reorganizing their priorities (see also Steele, 1997). We have studied the disidentification hypothesis in the domain of moral goodness as well. For example, J. Aronson et al. (1995) found that after behaving uncompassionately, participants attempted to affirm themselves by denying the importance of compassion to their self-concepts. Although such effects were certainly conceivable under the older formulations of dissonance theory, the effect of dissonance on the self was never a focal point. In a conceptually related study, it was found that in the face of a self-threat, people recruited lost self-esteem by heightening their identification with a valued reference group, a defensive reaction that was attenuated when people were able to affirm another unrelated aspect of their self-concept. This research demonstrates how identification and disidentification processes may produce changes in self-concept—a finding that poses serious challenges for conventional theories that view social identity as fixed rather than malleable (Garcia & Steele, 1997).


Self-affirmation theory contributed a great deal to bringing dissonance and motivational processes back to the analysis of significant social psychological phenomena (see Sherman & Cohen, 2006, for a review). Like the early version of dissonance theory, self-affirmation theory lacks precision with regard to some of its postulates and with regard to the mediating process (but see Critcher & Dunning, 2015, for some mediating evidence). But, like dissonance theory, this imprecision comes with the benefit of an expansive range of application. It is a useful tool for examining a broad range of phenomena where self-protective motivations play a role, and it pushes dissonance theory beyond the consideration of simple consistency drives to a broader and richer territory. That is, self-affirmation theory directs our attention to the many manifestations and implications of the motivation to manage and protect self or identity. How this motivation plays out depends on the opportunities and threats presented by a particular situation, whether it be a dissonance paradigm (Steele & Liu, 1983), the more common daily stressors people face in their lives (Keough et al., 1997), the context of debate or negotiation (Atkins et al., 1997; Cohen et al., 1997), or the schooling environment (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

This synthetic approach of applying self-affirmation theory to new phenomena is likely to shed light on the processes underlying these phenomena (including stress and illness, stereotyping and inferential biases, and academic identification). But it is also likely to provide insights into the nature of dissonance processes, especially when such synthesis is tempered by a consideration of the constraints and limiting conditions uncovered by more analytically inclined experimenters. For example, one message of self-affirmation research is that self-image motivations permeate a wide range of phenomena, even very basic and everyday tasks like causal attribution (e.g., Liu & Steele, 1986). Thus, it may be premature to assert that the precondition for all dissonance phenomena is the commission of a freely chosen act with aversive, foreseeable consequences (Cooper & Fazio, 1984). Although in some situations, this may hold, in other situations, different factors may create self-threat and arouse dissonance.

At present, using self-affirmation theory as opposed to a more analytic theory is a bit like trading in a fine-tuned sports sedan for an all-terrain vehicle with huge tires and a bulky suspension system. One sacrifices the ability to sense slight variations in the texture of the road for the ability to venture into uncharted, unpaved territory. As research continues and the theory becomes more precise, the trade-off will become less and less significant.


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1The writing of this chapter benefited greatly from many delightful conversations with Claude Steele.