Stuart Smalley had the Right Idea: Self-Affirmations Boost Grades for Some

By Eliza Strickland | April 17, 2009 9:00 am

studentThe Saturday Night Live character who famously recited the mantra: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” may have been setting a valuable example for schoolkids. A new study asked middle school students to do short, self-affirming writing exercises, and found that the simple task boosted the grades of some students for two years afterward. The students who benefited most were blacks who were doing poorly, the study found; the exercises made no difference for white students, or for black ones who were already doing well [The New York Times].

The result is exciting, lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen says, because it suggests that even modest interventions, when done early, can interrupt a downward achievement spiral. “Small changes to an individual’s psychological state can have surprisingly large effect over time if they alter the angle of people’s performance trajectory,” he said, adding that the early benefit is compounded over time [Reuters].

For the study, published in Science, the researchers gave writing assignments to 7th grade students at a public school in Connecticut. Some students were given a list of values, such as relationships with friends and family, creativity, interest in music or sports. They were asked to pick the value that was most important to them and write a paragraph about it. “The exercise gives kids a chance to say, ‘This is what I believe in.’ It takes the sting out of potential failures,” Cohen said [Reuters]. Other students were given a writing assignment that didn’t focus on their values or self-image. By the end of 8th grade, almost two years after the writing exercises, struggling black students who had written about their values had grade point averages that were .4 points higher than comparable students who had written on an unrelated topic.

The authors found, too, that those who benefited from the exercises felt more adequate as students on average than those struggling peers who did the control assignment. One reason black students benefited more than whites may be that they have more anxiety over academic performance because of racial stereotypes, the authors suggest [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • YouRang

    It seems to me that the project proved the INVALIDITY of Stuart’s mantra. They did not do the cheap mantra–instead the students worked on understanding the positive elements of their relationship to their peers. I think that’s what I disliked about Al Franken’s character–sometimes he would talk about just this kind of work and then in the end HE WOULD TAKE IT ALL AWAY with his cheap mantra. No one remembers the positive work he sometimes suggested as SS, they just remember the cheap mantra. I think his earliest expressions were just the cheap mantra and the message was clear–there’s no shortcut–and they were funny. But then he started putting in real help and SS became pathetic and unfunny.

  • Nick

    You have to live with yourself all the time. If you tell yourself bad things, your life will consist of those bad things certainly when you are alone and you will bring them elsewhere. The same is true for good things.

  • YouRang

    Nick, although true, it doesn’t go to my criticism of the Discover article. The students did the fundamentally more important job of examining their lives. SS was originally funny because it was critiquing the worship at the altar of unknown gods that was so prevalent in the 70’s and 80’s (EST, etc bullshit). If someone just tells himself that “He is smart..(or whatever)” without doing the work, the subconscious won’t believe it.

  • Theodore Wheeland

    @ YouRang Says, hmm


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