Self-Affirmation Could Give People In Poverty Added Mental Boost, Study Suggests

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Sometimes a little bit of self-affirmation is all it takes to give you that much-needed push.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science shows that remembering a past achievement or proud moment is associated with better performance on problem-solving tests among people in poverty, and also seems to increase the desire to seek out local government aid services.

"This study shows that surprisingly simple acts of self-affirmation can improve the cognitive function and behavioural outcomes of people in poverty," study researcher Jiaying Zhao, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement. Zhao worked on the study with colleagues at Princeton University and the University of Washington.

The study included 150 people who visited a New Jersey soup kitchen over a two-year time period. Some of the study participants were asked to privately tape-record a personal story of a past achievement or success before undergoing some problem-solving tests. The other participants served as the control group, and were not asked to specifically tell a story of a past achievement.

Researchers found that those assigned to recount a past achievement did better on the problem-solving tests -- what researchers said was the same as a 10 point increase in IQ scores -- and were more likely to express a desire to get some help from aid services.

In addition, "the effects were not driven by elevated positive mood, and the same intervention did not affect the performance of wealthy participants," they wrote in the study. "The findings suggest that self-affirmation can improve the cognitive performance and decisions of the poor, and it may have important policy implications."

In previous research, Zhao has found an association between poverty and having less mental "bandwidth" to put toward other aspects of life that could potentially help someone break out of poverty, such as education and time management.

"Previous accounts of poverty have blamed the poor for their personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success," Zhao previously said in a statement. "We're arguing that being poor can impair cognitive functioning, which hinders individuals’ ability to make good decisions and can cause further poverty."

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