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Reducing the harmful effects of stress on problem-solving

NSF Award:

Understanding the Effects of Self-Affirmation  (University of Pittsburgh)

Congressional Districts:
Research Areas:

Chronic stress can impair problem-solving and creativity. However, an NSF-funded study has shown that affirming one's self-worth prior to embarking on a challenging problem-solving task can improve performance, especially for students with high levels of chronic stress. 

A number of research studies show that stress can have a number of negative effects on performance, health and well-being. However, less is known about protective factors that may reduce these negative outcomes. The NSF-funded study showed that a relatively simple self-affirmation intervention for those under chronic stress leads to better problem-solving and more creativity. Study results show that self-affirmation may be protective in the context of chronic or ongoing stress. These findings could lead to interventions to improve academic performance for students with chronic stress.

For the study, participants were randomly assigned to a self-affirmation condition (i.e., writing about something that is important to them like their family) or a control condition. They also completed a questionnaire to assess chronic levels of stress in their lives. Participants then answered difficult problem-solving questions under time pressure in front of an evaluator. Consistent with past research, chronic stress led to decreases in problem-solving ability.  However, this effect was lessened through self-affirmation. This demonstrates that self-affirmation decreases the impact of stress on problem-solving ability.

Results were reported in PLoS One. 


  • a woman works on a problem-solving task
A study participant works on a problem-solving task.
Janine Dutcher, UCLA

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