The Problem of Self-Worth Risk Aversion

The lack of preventative healthcare consumption in America seems absurd. Going to the doctor when you’re relatively healthy could save your life, but a suboptimal number of  people do it.

However, when viewed another way our avoidance of routine doctor visits makes sense. The default position is for people to assume they are healthy, and so there is little to gain when a doctor confirms that belief. On they other hand, by going to the doctor you stand to lose a lot. Why risk ruining your happy life with the possibility of really bad news?

A new study by Jennifer Howell and James Shepperd finds that self-affirmation may be one solution to this problem. When Howell and Shepperd gave subjects an exercise that made them see themselves in a more positive light, subjects were more likely to choose to see information about their risk of disease. By raising a subject’s self-worth, the researchers made them more open to doing something that could lower self-worth.

Receiving health information is just one of many situations people avoid because they fear changes to self-worth.  The need to maintain self-worth plays a big role in why people are hesitant to change their minds, even when facts contradict their current beliefs. Admitting something you believed is wrong leads to the acknowledgment that you are not as smart as you thought you were. Imagine how you would feel if it suddenly became clear you were 10% less smart than you think you are. It makes sense to not let that happen. Unfortunately, this messes with the country’s public policy because it makes people of all ideologies slow to admit they are wrong. The need to maintain self-worth is one reason people refuse to believe that climate change is real or that charter schools won’t destroy public education.

Our desire to maintain self-worth also messes with our personal lives. People interact with the opposite sex or quit their jobs at suboptimal levels because the outcome of a sexual advance or foray into the job market can have relatively large effects on self-worth. People also refuse to take necessary business risks because of threats to self-worth, something Seth Godin calls the influence of our “lizard brain.”

Although self-affirmation tends to be an effective solution to these problems — see David Sherman and Geoff Cohen for a good summary (pdf) — the challenge is finding ways to authentically boost self-affirmation during big decisions or key evaluation periods. An app that yells out “you are awesome” every few hours probably won’t cut it — we need to build authentic self-affirmation into decision processes.
Howell, J., & Shepperd, J. (2012). Reducing Information Avoidance Through Affirmation Psychological Science, 23 (2), 141-145 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611424164

Sherman, D., & Cohen, G. (2006). The Psychology of Self‐defense: Self‐Affirmation Theory Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183-242 DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38004-5

3 Responses to The Problem of Self-Worth Risk Aversion

  1. Rina says:

    I hope it doesn’t affect your self-worth too much if I point out that there are 2 mistakes in your 4th paragraph… and I’m not referring to the last sentence😉

  2. erichorowitz says:

    Thanks. I always appreciate an anonymous internet editor.

  3. Rina says:

    No problem, though I was publishing anonymously under my real name😉 I’m prone to typos myself, so don’t worry – it happens when I’m in a hurry to publish a post or a ocmment.

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