Joanne Wood

Joanne V Wood Ph.D.

Regarding Self-Regard

Sorry, Oprah? Responses to Positive Self-Statement Research

"Sorry, Oprah?" Media reports positive self-statement research

Posted Jul 15, 2009

    "Sorry Oprah: Self-help books seldom helpful: Study"
    "Self-help makes you feel worse"
    "The powerlessness of positive thinking"

These are some of the media headlines inspired by my research on positive self-statements, which I described in my last posting. The research showed that for people with low self-esteem, repeating a positive self-statement backfired: It made them feel worse immediately afterward, rather than better. The paper was published in Psychological Science last week, and the response has been overwhelming. I've been interviewed on radio and TV (e.g., Australian radio, Canada's CBC radio, CBC NewsNet, Colombian National Public Radio) and reports of the research have appeared in many outlets, including the following:

Time Magazine

The Washington Post

The BBC 

The Economist 

OneIndia

various blogs

Why has the research struck such a chord? Self-help books are a billion-dollar industry. And the message does not come just from books: TV shows, magazines, even coffee mugs provide daily "affirmations." The belief that we should "think positively" permeates our culture. My research challenges that belief. It even seems to contradict common sense.

The trouble with common sense is that it can be wrong. Or not right for everyone. I've heard from many people around the world who have tried positive self-statements that haven't worked for them. A nurse from the Netherlands wrote:

I've read a lot of books about positive thinking. Every time I tried so hard to practice the theories, but...I felt much more anxiety and insecurity....These results have made me down and I've felt very bad about myself. What did I do wrong?????????

A mother of a disabled child wrote:

When I turned to books for advice they were all super positive and did not even begin to reflect my experiences so I came away feeling worse, rather than inspired.

Although I'm glad that the media have conveyed that positive self-statements do not work for everyone, they have also made distorted or exaggerated claims about the research. Here are some of their questions and conclusions, along with my responses:

Are self-help books ‘a lot of hooey'?

My research concerned only positive self-statements, and only one type of positive self-statement, used in a certain way. Research participants repeated to themselves, "I am a lovable person" multiple times over a period of several minutes. If a self-help book concerns positive self-statements used in other ways, or if it advocates strategies other than self-statements, my research is not relevant. At the same time, though, I'm afraid that many self-help books are "a lot of hooey." Most self-help books are not based on any research whatsoever. They may be based on good intentions or personal experience, but they are rarely based on even one iota of scientific evidence to support their recommendations. See Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness for a terrific exception.

Does your research challenge cognitive therapies?

No. Cognitive therapy, as conducted by PhD psychologists, does not encourage people to simply recite positive self-statements. Rather, in the context of a multifaceted program, trained therapists encourage clients to identify their maladaptive thoughts and the circumstances that elicit them, among other things.

The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them.

No, it doesn't. This idea is intriguing, but my research did not test it.

In sum, despite the catchy headlines, my research does not suggest that all self-help books are worthless or that "positive thinking" is typically harmful. It does not impugn Oprah. Rather, it suggests that one widely-endorsed technique--repeating positive self-statements, in the specific way I studied them--is ineffective or worse for some people.


This conclusion has elicited some flak from proponents of positive self-statements. Some of their arguments have included these:

Positive self-statements were never intended to be one-size-fits-all. A suitable phrase must be tailored to each individual.
That sounds plausible. However, most proponents of positive self-statements, such as popular magazines, recommend sentences without warning that they might not work for everyone.

Positive self-statements were never intended to make you feel good right away. They are meant to induce discomfort at first.
Really? Most proponents of positive self-statements do not present this caveat.

Positive self-statements can be beneficial, if used persistently for months or years.
This may be true. But again, most advocates of positive self-statements don't tell us that it takes time for them to work. And even if used consistently, positive self-statements may not work for everyone. I received a moving note from an Australian gentleman:

I spent the last 10 years reading every positive thinking and self-book on the market, and listened to positive thinking CDs as I slept. But the truth is, after 10 long years...I have actually become worse and now suffer depression.

Positive self-statements can be useful if they are specific, rather than overly general, and moderate, rather than extreme.

This makes sense. Repeating a statement that does not contradict one's self-view could help. Rather than repeating a sweeping phrase such as "I'm a lovable person," then, people may remind themselves of a specific attribute that they are confident about (e.g., "I am a good listener"). John Lee and I have found evidence that such specific self-statements can boost mood. But many advocates of positive self-statements advocate overly general and outlandish phrases such as, "I accept all aspects of myself completely."

Your findings are depressing.

To the contrary, I've received many responses from ordinary people who are delighted by and grateful for these findings. People who have tried self-statements and found that they do not work for them have felt frustrated and demoralized. As one person wrote:

I felt very overwhelmed and pressured to change...I felt worse about myself as I kept failing to think more positive...Now I know I did nothing wrong, I'm not to blame, I did my best!

It is possible that positive self-statements used in certain ways may be beneficial. If they work for you, by all means, use them. The moral of my research, however, is that to really know whether self-statements are beneficial, they need to be examined through controlled studies.

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