New study: The Tricky Side of Positive Affirmations

Psychologist Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo and her colleagues rigorusly tested the effectiveness of positive self-talk or positive affirmations in the laboratory . Their paper will appear in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science.

There’s scientific reason to be skeptical about the value of self-affirmation. Psychologists know, for example, that people have a great deal of difficulty balancing two contradictory ideas. We may try to tell ourselves we’re something we’d like to be, but most of us are deeply resistant to ideas that violate our true sense of identity. Based on this theory, Wood reasoned that forced affirmations might merely remind some people of how they are not measuring up—and indeed might boomerang and make them feel worse. Here’s the experiment:

Wood gave a group of volunteers a standard test for self-esteem, and selected those who scored highest and lowest. Then they all participated in a writing exercise, but half got this instruction: Every time you hear a bell sound, repeat to yourself: “I am a lovable person.” The bell sounded about every 15 seconds during the exercise, and afterward she measured their mood and self-esteem. She also had the volunteers think about the words “I am a lovable person”; but some thought only about why the statement might be true, while others thought about why the statement might be either true of false.

The results were unambiguous. Those who already felt good about themselves got a slight boost from self-loving talk, but those who had low self-esteem to begin with got worse—more depressed and more self-critical. But interestingly, the volunteers who tried to focus on only positive thoughts about themselves did worse than those who were encouraged to think both good and bad things about themselves. Those preoccupied with self-affirmation were probably unsuccessful at suppressing all negative thinking, giving the negativity more power—power enough to trump the self-loving words.

The authors recommend to be a little more concrete and detailed when making self-statements. Instead of affirming "I am a generous person" they advise to look for positive characteristics that seem true for that respective individual like " I am good at selecting gifts which create joy."

Research Article
Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others
Joanne V. Wood 1 , W.Q. Elaine Perunovic 2 , and John W. Lee 1
  1 University of Waterloo and   2 University of New Brunswick 
  Published in: Psychological Science
Published Online: 21 May 2009
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.

ABSTRACT—Positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. We examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. A survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective. Two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement ("I’m a lovable person") or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true. Among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who "need" them the most.