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Psychological Science
2016 Project Proposal

The Effects of Self-Reinforcement on Physiological Arousal, Affect, and Willpower

Kimberly Romanoff ’18 and Jannay Morrow (Psychology)

Our study examines the extent to which self-reinforcement (SR) helps mitigate the physiological and psychological consequences of stressful experiences. People who are relatively high in self-reinforcement tend to notice, value, and reward positive aspects of themselves and their own behavior (Bandura, 1986; Heiby, 1982). Rather than being hypercritical and self-denigrating, they reassure and praise themselves during stressful encounters. Our experiment compares the effects of self-reinforcement to those of positive self-focus (PSF) by examining physiology, affect, and behavior. After completing baseline measures, participants mentally prepared a speech to be videotaped and evaluated (stress induction). We then randomly assigned participants to one of four conditions. In the experimental conditions, participants spent 8 min visualizing 47 statements that induced either self-reinforcement or positive self-focus. In one control condition, participants imagined 47 neutral statements. In the other control condition, participants waited 8 min before giving the speech. After the speech, participants completed measures of willpower, problem-solving, affect, and personality. We continuously measured physiological arousal from the baseline period until 6 min after the speech. Because positive states help people cope with stressors (Tugade, 2011), we predict that both the SR and PSF groups will “bounce-back” more quickly from the stressor than the control groups will. Yet, relative to PSF, SR may confer greater physiological and psychological benefits. Because SR directly implicates self-evaluative processes, it may more effectively counter the self-criticism and worry that accompany evaluative stress. Likewise, because SR centers on goal-directed behavior, it may exert more influence on willpower and problem-solving. We hope our findings will illuminate the roles that both self-reinforcement and positive self-focus play in well-being, emotion regulation, and motivation.