Understanding self-affirmation effects: The moderating role of self-esteem

Xuan Zhu, Marco Yzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Objectives: Whether people benefit from self-affirmation in overcoming resistance to health messages may depend on their level of self-esteem. However, extant theories offer rival hypotheses about the role of self-esteem. We pitted these hypotheses against each other, building on the argument that how self-esteem shapes self-affirmation effects may depend on how and when people self-affirm. Design: A 3 (Self-affirmation type: value essay, attribute scale, control task) by 2 (Timing: pre-message, post-message) plus 1 (message-only) experimental, between-subjects design. Methods: Participants (N = 422) completed a value essay, an attribute scale, a control task, or no task, either before or after reading a message about health risks of excessive drinking. Participants then completed defensiveness and message acceptance measures. Results: Self-esteem moderated self-affirmation effects across different types and timing of self-affirmation. While participants with relatively high self-esteem consistently benefited from self-affirmation, participants with relatively low self-esteem experienced adverse effects from self-affirmation. Self-affirmed participants with high self-esteem showed lower psychological discomfort, lower personal risk discounting, and higher message acceptance than unaffirmed participants, while self-affirmed participants with low self-esteem showed higher psychological discomfort, higher personal risk discounting, and lower message acceptance than unaffirmed participants. Conclusions: These findings support the proposition that self-esteem serves as affirmational resources, which implies that self-affirmation interventions to reduce defensiveness to health messages may be beneficial for people with high self-esteem but less so for people with lower self-esteem. Similar to much other self-esteem research, self-esteem was negatively skewed, which warrants caution in generalization of the findings across all levels of self-esteem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1016-1039
Number of pages24
JournalBritish Journal of Health Psychology
Issue number4
Early online dateFeb 28 2021
StatePublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Data collection was supported by the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication Ralph D. Casey Dissertation Award and the University of Minnesota Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship to the first author.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The British Psychological Society


  • defensive responses
  • health message
  • self-affirmation
  • self-esteem

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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