Way back in 2009 I wrote about the social rejection self-fulfilling prophecy. This relates to the unfortunate fact that, if you expect someone you meet for the first time not to like you, you tend to behave more distantly towards them. This increases the chances that they won’t like you. The reverse is also true: if you assume that you will be liked, you tend to behave more warmly and thus increase your chances of being liked.
People who have high levels of social anxiety tend to fall into the trap of negative expectations. They are particularly sensitive to the possibility of social rejection. This threat triggers an avoidance approach which makes them behave defensively in unfamiliar social settings, leading to less than warm responses from the strangers they interact with. This, in turn, confirms their fears and insecurity about social rejection. A vicious circle.
This self-fulfilling prophecy can be a major handicap when it comes to career development. It means you are less likely to engage in appropriate professional networking, cutting off potentially useful sources of information, insight and advice which could boost your career. It makes you less likely to create a positive first impression during an interview. It can also affect your ability to establish important relationships in the crucial first few days of a new job.
How do you break out of this trap?
The good news, according to one group of researchers (Stinson et al., 2011), is that a fairly simple self-affirmation exercise can have significant long-term effects on this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Re-affirm your sources of validation
In their studies they got people to rank a list of strengths and abilities that were important to the individual’s sense of self worth. The list included items such as sense of humour, artistic skills, spontaneity, creativity, etc. They were then asked to write about their top-ranked value, why it was important to them, their reasons for picking it and the extent to which it influenced their lives and was an important part of their self-image. The socially-anxious participants who underwent the self-affirmation exercise had improved scores on measure of social anxiety and were also rated as more calm, relaxed and appreciative in a subsequent social interaction compared to a control group who were asked to focus on a low-ranked value. This effect lasted up to two months after the self-affirmation exercise.
The authors speculate that this self-affirmation buffers the individual against potential perceived threats to self-image that might come from social rejection. This might be because the individual is shifted to a ‘higher level of construal’ in which they concentrate on longer-term more meaningful characteristics. This is in line with similar research on abstraction and self-esteem resilience.
Perhaps this research points to the benefits of taking a strengths-based approach, especially with clients who might be prone to social anxiety and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. It highlights the importance of developing a strong sense of personal identity as a pre-requisite to effective social interaction. (Interestingly, Erikson’s theory of personal development puts identity formation as a goal before intimacy.)
Maybe it would be even more effective if we were to get people to think about their core strengths and values from a third person perspective.
More effects of self-affirmation
As I run a fair amount of training on team-working, persuading, influencing and handling conflict, I was interested to find that self-affirmation exercises similar to the one described above have also been linked to people being more open to arguments against their strongly-held beliefs (Cohen et al., 2000). They also make people less defensive when hearing negative messages about valued behaviours that could adversely affect their health (Sherman et al., 2000).
- Stinson, D., Logel, C., Shepherd, S. & Zanna, M. (2011). Rewriting the self-fulfilling prophecy of social rejection: self-affirmation improves relational security and social behavior up to 2 months later. Psychological Science, 22(9), 1145-1149. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417725
- Cohen, G.L., Aronson, J. & Steele, C.M. (2000). When beliefs yield to evidence: reducing biased evaluation by affirming the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(9), 1151-1164. DOI:10.1177/01461672002611011
- Sherman, D.A.K., Nelson, L.D. & Steele, C.M. (2000). Do Messages about health risks threaten the self? Increasing the acceptance of threatening health messages via self-affirmation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(9), 1046-1058. DOI:10.1177/01461672002611003
- Read more about Self-Affirmation Theory on wikipedia.