Subjects: Behavioral health
Beginning with Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, self-help experts have implored those with low self-esteem to recite positive statements about themselves in an attempt to change their outlook.
Now, research by Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo suggests such recommendations may be counterproductive.
Psychologists know that people tend to accept input that is consistent with their own views and reject discordant input. For example, a person who believes she is outgoing and who is told she is will accept that input, but loners will reject it.
Wood‘s team designed experiments to see whether this phenomenon applied to the advice of Peale and his deciples. They surveyed 68 people using accepted methods for the measurement of self-esteem, and then asked them to jot down their current thoughts and feelings.
During this process, half the participants were told to repeat to themselves “I am a lovable person” each time they were prompted by a bell.
Following that experience, participants were asked questions like, “what is the probability that a 30-year-old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?” Wood’s team measured the participants’ responses on a 35-point scale in which higher numbers reflected happy moods.
Among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated “I’m a lovable person” posted an average score of 31, while those who did not repeat the phrase posted an average of 25.
However, participants with low self-esteem who made the statement averaged a dismal 10, while those who did not repeat the mantra managed a more respectable 17.
Wood concluded that the dissonant self-statements exacerbate negative moods in those with low self-esteem. And since many readers of self-help books suffer from low self-esteem, their advice may be worse than useless.
The write-up is in Psychological Science.