Should we re-think positive thinking?
Giving ourselves pep talks may backfire.
Posted March 20, 2009
Everyone knows that to be successful and happy, we should say favorable things to ourselves.
Everyone knows that to be successful and happy, we should say favorable things to ourselves. Self-help books, magazines, and TV shows encourage "positive self-statements," such as "I can do it!," "I'm good at this," and "I'm a lovable person." Advocates of positive self-statements range from Émile Coué, an early 20th century French psychologist and pharmacist, who recommended repeating the phrase, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better," to Oprah Winfrey, whose O magazine advised readers to:
Look at yourself in a full-length mirror...Now compliment yourself. Yes, you can do it. Repeat these empowering words aloud every morning and every night...
But are positive self-statements actually beneficial? In an experiment that will be published in Psychological Science, Elaine Perunovic, John Lee, and I tested this idea. We recruited people to participate in our study based on their scores on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which has 10 questionnaire items such as, "I feel that I have a number of good qualities." People who scored in the lowest third of the distribution of Rosenberg scores (low self-esteem) and in the highest third of the distribution (high self-esteem) were invited to come to our laboratory, where we randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. We asked participants to either repeat to themselves the statement, "I'm a lovable person," (positive self-statement condition) for four minutes, or to write down their thoughts and feelings (control condition) for four minutes. Our results indicated that people who were low in self-esteem felt worse about themselves after repeating the positive self-statement. Their moods and their "state self-esteem"--their feelings about themselves at that moment--were more negative than those of lows in the control condition. In contrast, people with high self-esteem did feel better after repeating the positive self-statement, but to only a limited degree.
We have obtained similar results in other studies. It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.
Why might engaging in positive self-statements be harmful for people low in self-esteem? I'll address that question in a future post. In the meantime, some of us might be better off following the example of my philosopher friend Paul Thagard, who quipped, "Every day, in every way, I've stopped talking to myself."