Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Power of Dialectic Reasoning: A Case Study of Self-Affirmations

I just read two papers that both resonated with my model of human thought even though on the surface they tell opposite, contradictory stories.  In the process of figuring out how they can both be true, I learned a lot.  The process of taking two contradictory ideas and merging them into a coherent model is dialectic reasoning.  Dialectic reasoning is one of the highest levels of thought and one of the most powerful.  It is also one of the hardest.  The absence of this ability is one of the things that leads to major disputes in politics, religion, personal relationships, and more.  So in the interest of sharing and spreading at least an idea of what dialectic reasoning is, I thought I would share my story.

The papers were about self-affirmations.  These are the positive self-talk mantras that are supposed to make you feel good.  There is an old SNL routine that used to make fun of them, but they are incredibly popular in the positive psychology discipline.  When I was at TEDx in May, it was amazing how many of the speakers were promoting self-affirmation.  “I am a good person.”  “I can do anything I put my mind to.”  “I can be successful in my job.”  “I can make her (him) love me.”  Full disclosure: I have never been a believer in these. 

The first one you may remember I blogged about recently: Oliver Burkeman’s recent book “The Antidote  .  The book debunks positive thinking and self-affirmations pretty powerfully.  His main point is that if you achieve the goals, hedonic adaptation reduces the pleasure you get from them over time.  Or you fail to achieve the goals and feel like a failure.  Either way, there is no good result in the long term.

The second one I just found.  It is called “The Science of Self-Affirmations.”  The “science” label attracted me to it, so I read it even though I started with doubts.  He cites some real research (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) showing that self-affirmations can increase willpower by reducing ego depletion.  How can this be true and Oliver Burkeman’s book be true at the same time? 

But dialectic reasoning came to the rescue.  I looked a little more carefully at the self-affirmations that were used in the study that supports them.  They were pretty non-specific.  They were things like “I have the power in me to make good things happen” and “I deserve positive relationships in my life.”  These are not outcomes so much as immeasurable statements that you can believe or not at your own pleasure.  The research also included statements like “I take small steps every day to improve” and “Obstacles show me where to go next.”  These are process recommendations that you can follow without having any outcome in mind.  And therefore no way to prove that you failed.  You can happily believe that you succeeded.  Hedonic adaptation may reduce the benefit, but at least there is no risk of the negative consequences of failure.

In fact, these affirmations kind of fit the recommendations made by Burkeman in his book, especially the process affirmations.  He recommends thinking about all of the possible actions you can take in a given moment given the existing circumstances and taking the one most likely to have a good outcome.  Then whatever happens, it is the best thing that was possible in that circumstance.  No matter what, you can feel good about the outcome, experience a positive self-identity resonance, and have reduced ego-depletion. 

So what I learned through this experience is that you can get the best of both worlds.  You can follow the process-focused model espoused by Burkeman, create positive self-affirmations that combine a process-description with a metric-less outcome that you can achieve by default, get more self-identity resonance, less ego-depletion . . . . win-win all the way around.