From Overwhelmed to Self-affirmed: How Expressing Our Deeply Held Values Can Clear Our Heads
As a Black American mother, social psychologist, and public policy expert, I have found the last year to be difficult—to put it mildly. While I am optimistic to see our nation beginning to reckon with its history of racial injustice, the truth is that I am more overwhelmed than anything else. As a mother of triplets—four-year-old triplets—I can say that that there are very few moments when I do not feel overwhelmed. At the same time, I do not experience the burden of poverty. It is incredibly difficult for me to imagine life in 2020 as a single mother living below the poverty line.
For over a decade now, my work has focused on understanding the psychology and decision making of those who are chronically overwhelmed. Individuals who experience persistent poverty live in a constant state of making difficult tradeoffs about how to manage the scarce resources of money and time. My colleagues and I have taken a novel approach to the study of poverty. We examine some previously unexplored psychological consequences of poverty—and what can be done to provide those living in poverty the resources to make their day-to-day lives a bit more manageable. Poverty places an enormous tax on the ability of anyone to think clearly and make long-term decisions. It forces a person to worry about what lies directly ahead, at the expense of planning for the more distant future.
This is not just about saving money for a rainy day or planning for retirement (though these are critical issues which I also have studied in my own research). In addition to all the well-known burdens of poverty (for example, the consequences for health and safety), poverty has a powerful effect on the way people think. Poverty creates a real, tangible burden that continually consumes the valuable mental resources necessary to thrive. My research has attempted to understand these psychological burdens.
My work with Jiaying Zhao and Eldar Shafir on self-affirmation among individuals living in poverty demonstrates some of the real cognitive impacts of the negative stigma of poverty. Self-affirmation refers to one way that individuals can adapt in situations that threaten their sense of self. People can engage in self-affirmation in various ways—for example by talking or writing about things that they deeply value, or sources of personal pride. In turn, self-affirmation can alleviate negative stigma associated with gender, race, or class that might interfere with other behaviors. To illustrate, Akira Miyake and colleagues showed that allowing women enrolled in a college physics class to engage in just two self-affirmations early in the course virtually eliminated the gender gap in class performance.
In our research, we invited people to describe, in detail, a previous personal episode when they felt proud and successful, and this alleviated some of the cognitive impacts of the stigma of poverty. These low-income participants were more likely to take information about a benefit (free tax preparation) and showed higher executive control. Several of these studies were conducted at soup kitchens—where the stigma of poverty was certainly quite salient. Our findings show how a positive self-reflection can provide some mental bandwidth to a population that can benefit greatly from less psychological background noise.
Our work provides one example of how psychological science can be used to understand (and potentially address) a significant social challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an immeasurable laundry list of daily stressors and hassles. And these stressors are taxing our collective mental well-being. Many individuals may worry about becoming sick on a daily basis—even seasonal allergies have likely been far more stress-inducing this year than usual. Caregivers (women, in particular) are engaging in the impossible task of juggling their professional and personal obligations in an unprecedented way. Others are experiencing the compounding effects of social isolation and loneliness after months of limited contact with the outside world.
Although a simple self-affirmation task surely cannot erase all of the burdens faced by members of a wide range of stigmatized groups, it can be one piece of a bigger solution. We should also remember that many consequences of stigma are compounded when they intersect. For example, the health outcomes of Black mothers are dramatically worse than those of their White counterparts. In the United States, people of color, women, individuals experiencing poverty, and those who live with other types of stigma can benefit from these types of tools and strategies to mitigate the chronic stress that goes along with them. Self-affirmation is just one potential tool.
What else can we do?
Government agencies and employers can do a much better job of acknowledging and addressing the array of demands that have so many Americans feeling under water. This goes far beyond the straightforward economic impacts. For example, employers should not merely acknowledge the increased stress faced by workers who are also caregivers. They should also create policies to give these families flexibility in their work routines. In addition, we must increase access to and use of mental health care—both for preventative purposes and in the face of significant acute issues. Institutions should also implement authentically anti-racist policies and practices. And that can begin with acknowledging and addressing the outsize stresses placed on people of color during everyday interactions, as well as times of collective crisis.
For Further Reading
Hall, C. C., Zhao, J., & Shafir, E. (2014). Self-affirmation among the poor: Cognitive and behavioral implications. Psychological Science, 25(2), 619-625.
Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980.
Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self‐defense: Self‐affirmation theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183-242.
Crystal Hall is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she has been surviving the pandemic with her husband and their 4-year-old triplets.