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Does it Bug You? Exploring the Role of Self-Affirmation in the Distress Caused by Killing Open Access


Other title
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Blatter, Jamin E
Supervisor and department
Schimel, Jeff (Psychology)
Examining committee member and department
Schmader, Toni (External Examiner)
Rast, David (Psychology)
Passey, Jenn (Psychology)
Nicoladis, Elena (Psychology)
Moore, Sarah (Business)
Department of Psychology

Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-06:Spring 2017
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
A large body of research confirms that self-affirmation reduces defensive reactions to self-threats. Self-affirmation buffers against threats to the self by bolstering perceptions of the self as moral and good, thereby serving to restore global self-integrity. However, recent research shows that when one affirms on a domain related to the initial threat, self-affirmation can backfire, as it serves as a reminder of the self-standard that had just been violated. A series of studies examined the effect of self-affirmation on a unique type of self-threat: killing. Because killing likely represents a stark departure from one’s moral standards, it was hypothesized that self-affirmation may draw attention to the violated standard, and thus fail to bolster one from distress, and may even exacerbate it. I tested this hypothesis across four studies designed to assess the effect of self-affirmation on guilt and distress after immoral behavior, namely killing bugs. I then assessed psychological distress using various indices of guilt and shame, including a behavioral hand washing measure. Contrary to the hypothesis, Study 1 found that when given the choice of how many bugs to kill, self-affirmation might buffer against the distress caused by killing, as self-affirmed participants reported less distress than non-affirmed participants. However, a different picture emerged in subsequent studies, such that self-affirmation led to more guilt and distress when participants were forced to kill a specified number of bugs, in line with the hypothesis (Studies 2 and 4), and did not seem to help or harm participants if self-affirmation was completed after the extermination task, rather than before (Study 3). These results suggest that the conditions under which the immoral behavior occurs as well as the timing of the self-affirmation intervention may influence the level of distress experienced. Discussion focuses on the theoretical implications and importance of these findings within the greater self-affirmation and distress literatures.
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