Self-Affirmation and Reward Processing: An Association Waiting to be Explored Further?

By Rowena Kong

Most of us would likely remember that rewarding feeling we experience each time we receive praise from others or get to own an item on our top favourite list. While it is not baffling for us to associate positive aspects of speech and possessions with ourselves, the neural correlates of this relationship are only beginning to be unraveled. In a recent research finding published in Psychological Science, Dutcher et al. (2016) reported that making judgments while self-affirming led to activation of the ventral striatum, a subcortical region in the brain which is part of the dopaminergic reward circuit. College students and older adults from the community were recruited for a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study which performed brain scans of the participants while they were instructed to work on decision-making tasks. The participants were divided into experimental self-affirmation and control non-affirmation groups. Before the scan was ran, experimental participants ranked a set of personal values, e.g. art, science and religion, in the order of importance while control participants would rank characteristics of a toaster, which they thought would be most important to a typical college student, someone who is not themselves. During the actual scanning procedure, participants viewed paired pictures which depicted high and low ratings of importance and were asked to pick their preference between the two or neither one.

The results showed greater activation of both left and right ventral striatum regions in the self-affirmation than non-affirmation participant groups. There was no difference in ventral striatal activity when non-affirmation participants were choosing between paired high-ranking and low-ranking toaster’s attributes, which suggested the reason of lack of self-relevance in the theme of the task. Other regions with increased activation were the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex, which also play a role in self-processing and evaluation of emotional stimuli (Dutcher et al., 2016; Maddock, Garrett, & Buonocore, 2003). While an explanation of the link between self-affirmed values and positive reward may not be straightforward, this study aids in understanding the difference when the focus is directed towards the self and not others or an inanimate toaster. When it comes to visualizing concepts as broad as the arts and science, we may draw on a rich variety of experiences with us in the role of the lead actor and the university as our performing stage, which is especially relevant to college student participants. And in a wider field of perspectives, the chances that you will stumble upon more instances of positive encounters are greater and they naturally bring about the pleasurable response with them.


Dutcher, J. M., Creswell, J. D., Pacilio, L. E., Harris, P. R., Klein, W. M. P., Levine, J. M.,…Eisenberger, N. I. (2016). Self-affirmation activates the ventral striatum: A possible reward-related mechanism for self-affirmation. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0956797615625989

Maddock, R. J., Garrett, A. S., & Buonocore, M. H. (2003). Posterior cingulate cortex activation by emotional words: fMRI evidence from a valence decision task. Human brain mapping, 18(1), 30-41.

About the Author:

Rowena Kong is a fourth year Psychology major who is interested in writing about a diverse range of topics. The brain’s mirror neurons and dopaminergic reward system fascinate her just as much as cultural universals and implicit social communication. During her spare time, she enjoys photography, fanfiction, and working with Photoshop to improve her amateurish skills. 

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