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Open for Debate

Group membership, moral criticism and self-affirmation

21 May 2018

Public debates often involve issues that people find distressing, especially if they involve accusations of moral wrongdoing (even in the past) by groups with whom one identifies.  People want to avoid guilt ‘by association’ and maintain a general belief that they are good, rational, and moral creatures. Avoiding such feelings and maintaining such beliefs may, of course, prove difficult when one is confronted with evidence that they belong to a group that has produced harm to others.  In such situations, it can be difficult to accept that one’s group has done wrong or continues to benefit from past wrongdoing, and it’s perhaps no surprise that people are likely to react in a defensive way.

However, what is a bit surprising is how that defensiveness can be lessened by engaging in a form of self-affirmation, such as writing about a value that is important to yourself.  Those who do self-affirm show an increased willingness to acknowledge moral wrongdoing on the part of their self or group.[1]  This can be surprising because, for example, in contexts of oppression you might think that if anyone needs to be self-affirmed it’s the victims!  After all, why would those in the more privileged position need to be self-affirmed?

In part it has to do with the importance of group membership in our identity, as the groups we belong to can be important sources of meaning and well-being in our lives.[2]  Having our group identity critiqued, especially for moral wrongdoing, can then also call into question our individual identity as morally good.  So one way of understanding the effectiveness of self-affirmation in this context is that by affirming a value important to you, you are reassured that you are good or of worth, such that it is not as distressing when a group that you identify with is critiqued.[3]  Being affirmed in this way can serve as a helpful reminder that the group does not wholly define who you are, or fully determine your self-worth.

But that’s not all!  This is just part of a larger effect that self-affirmation has in diffusing threats to one’s sense of self.[4]  The threats to your sense of self need not be moral for self-affirmation to work.  The basic idea is that any critique is more threatening when you view it as calling into question your identity and self-worth as a whole, as compared to viewing it only as challenging one aspect of who you are.  So a prior self-affirmation helps one to defuse the threat of the forthcoming critique, by confirming you that your whole self-worth is not being called into question.

Of course being critiqued for a moral failure is likely to be seen as a fairly significant threat to one’s overall self, producing a lot of distress because of how it might reflect on your identity as a morally good person, and thus can spur defensive reactions in response.  Here the self-affirmation literature can shed some light on recent work done on the concept of shame, and vice versa.  When your actions reflect poorly on who you are as a person, it can trigger a feeling of shame, and that it turn might have two different sorts of consequences.[5]  If it makes you feel as if you’re inherently a morally bad person, where there is not much you can do about it, then that feeling of inferiority is likely to lead to defensiveness and perhaps to anger and hostility as well.  In this sense, you’re whole identity as a morally good person is being called into question, thus producing a lot of distress.  The negative consequences that can result from this has led some to think of shame in purely negative terms.

However, shame has also been show to sometimes motivate attempts at self-improvement rather than defensiveness.  When does this seem to occur?  If one views the failure as indicating only a specific defect in one’s identity, then that’s something that seems more likely to be repairable, as compared with an overall (or global) defect in your identity.  In such situations, it is not the whole of one’s identity as a morally good person that is called into question, but only a part, and as such that seem likely something that one could work on to improve.[6]

Here is where we can see the link between self-affirmation and these two senses of shame.  After a self-affirmation, you are probably less likely to interpret a moral failure as being a global condemnation of yourself, as you have just so recently had an important part of your identity affirmed.  There need not be a tension between the self-affirmation and an acknowledgment of moral failure, as you can be good in many ways while still making mistakes.  In short, if part of your identity was just positively affirmed, then you have a reason to view a moral failure as only picking out a specific problem (and thus more likely fixable), rather than seeing it as threatening the whole of your identity and basis for self-worth.

Self-affirmation provides I think indirect evidence that moral failures are commonly interpreted in terms of an overall defect in one’s moral identity.  This can help explain some of the power of self-affirmation with respect to cases where the critique is along moral lines.  But there’s another line of evidence that supports the idea that we by default view our moral identity as somewhat immutable, such that moral failure is likely to be viewed as calling into our sense of self as a whole.  Work done on “the true self” shows that morality is core to how we fundamentally view ourselves, and people believe that deep down their true self is morally good.[7]  Since morality is so fundamental to our sense of self, it’s no surprise that moral failure really challenges our self-knowledge and self-worth, and as such is likely to be viewed as posing an overall threatening to one’s sense of self.[8]

Thus, there’s a lot of potential for self-affirmation to help with public debates, given that there can be so much more at stake than might initially appear!

[1] Adams, G., Tormala, T. T., & O’Brien, L. T. (2006). The effect of self-affirmation on perception of racism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(5), 616-626.

[2] Čehajić, S., Brown, R., & González, R. (2009). What do I care? Perceived ingroup responsibility and dehumanization as predictors of empathy felt for the victim group. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12(6), 715-729.

[3] Čehajić-Clancy, S., Effron, D. A., Halperin, E., Liberman, V., & Ross, L. D. (2011). Affirmation, acknowledgment of in-group responsibility, group-based guilt, and support for reparative measures.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 256-270.

[4] Sherman, D.K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183-242.

[5] Gausel, L., & Leach, C. W. (2011). Concern for self-image and social image in the management of moral failure: Rethinking shame. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(4), 468-478.

[6] Gausel, N., Leach, C. W., Vignoles, V. L., & Brown, R. (2012). Defend or repair? Explaining responses to in-group moral failure by disentangling feelings of shame, rejection, and inferiority. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 941-960.

[7] Strohminger, N., & Nichols, S. (2014). The essential moral self. Cognition, 131(1), 159-171.

[8] Christy, A. G., Seto, E., Schlegel, R. J., Vess, M., & Hicks, J. A. (2016). Straying from the righteous path and from ourselves.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(11), 1538-1550.


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