Self-affirmation breaks the link between the behavioral inhibition system and the threat-potentiated startle response

Emotion. 2015 Apr;15(2):146-50. doi: 10.1037/emo0000030. Epub 2015 Jan 19.


Reflecting on core personal values is a common means of self-affirmation that can change how a person responds to threatening events. Specifically, self-affirmation has been found to reduce psychological defenses against self-esteem threats. The current research examined the effects of self-affirmation on more basic reflexive mechanisms of motivation and emotion. The startle-eyeblink response is a defensive reflex that can be elicited by loud bursts of noise and is potentiated in the presence of threatening stimuli. Individual differences in anxiety-related traits, including behavioral inhibition-system (BIS) sensitivity, predict the magnitude of threat-potentiated startle responses, such that higher BIS sensitivity corresponds with more intense responses to threatening stimuli. The current experiment (N = 100) tested the hypothesis that affirming a core personal value breaks the link between BIS sensitivity and threat responsiveness. We measured individual differences in BIS, manipulated the opportunity for self-affirmation, and assessed eyeblink responses to startle probes during negative, neutral, and positive emotional picture viewing. In the no-affirmation condition, BIS sensitivity predicted the magnitude of startle-eyeblink responses during negative pictures, consistent with previous research. In the self-affirmation condition, the relationship between BIS sensitivity and threat-potentiated startle responding was eliminated. This finding suggests that self-affirmation's effects extend beyond self-esteem defenses to influence basic defensive reflexes in threat-prone individuals. (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Blinking
  • Emotions*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Reflex, Startle*
  • Self Concept*
  • Social Behavior*