The problem with self-help books: Study shows the negative side to positive self-statements

Jul 02, 2009

In times of doubt and uncertainty, many Americans turn to self-help books in search of encouragement, guidance and self-affirmation. The positive self-statements suggested in these books, such as "I am a lovable person" or "I will succeed," are designed to lift a person's low self-esteem and push them into positive action. According to a recent study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, however, these statements can actually have the opposite effect.

Psychologists Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee from the University of Waterloo, and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick, found that individuals with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive self-statements.

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase "I am a lovable person." The psychologists then measured the participants' moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement--but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants' moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The psychologists suggested that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as "I accept myself completely," can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem. Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts. And, if people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, they may find negative thoughts to be especially discouraging.

As the authors concluded, "Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people [such as individuals with high self-esteem] but backfire for the very people who need them the most."

Source: Association for (news : web)

Explore further: Study first to use brain scans to forecast early reading difficulties

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Admiring celebrities can help improve self-esteem

Jun 05, 2008

A new study appearing in Personal Relationships shows how "connections" to celebrities, i.e. parasocial relationships, can allow people with low-self esteem to view themselves more positively.

True or false? How our brain processes negative statements

Feb 11, 2009

Every day we are confronted with positive and negative statements. By combining the new, incoming information with what we already know, we are usually able to figure out if the statement is true or false. Previous research ...

Recommended for you

Job stress not the only cause of burnouts at work

1 hour ago

Impossible deadlines, demanding bosses, abusive colleagues, unpaid overtime—all these factors can lead to a burnout. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, we often forget to consider the influence of home life.

Web technology offers mental health support

5 hours ago

A web based application connecting people with potential mental health issues to clinical advice and support networks has been created by researchers at Aston and Warwick universities.

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

mattytheory
4.3 / 5 (4) Jul 03, 2009
uhh i am pretty sure the self-help "rewiring" of the brain occurs over a prolonged period of time. notice how they failed to specify the duration of time the studies were carried out...

it takes time for the brain to believe what you are telling it. just saying "i am a good person" for someone with low self-esteem is bound to cause issues with cognitive dissonance and is therefore bound to make that person feel worse because they know they should believe what they are saying but their brains dont agree.

fucking first year psychology...
NeptuneAD
not rated yet Jul 03, 2009
Amen to that.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jul 03, 2009
ROFL !!

Perhaps this parallels the finding that SSRI anti-depressants initially make some people feel much worse before better.

Yeah, stuff may lift sufferers' depression unevenly, enhancing self-awareness, risking tragic consequences. Gotta spot them and buffer with trad amitriptyline...

Less seriously, I remember being given a 'relaxation tape'. Like any saccarine muzak-on-hold, just a few minutes of it brought me perilously close to media-rage...
Walid
5 / 5 (2) Jul 03, 2009
uhh i am pretty sure the self-help "rewiring" of the brain occurs over a prolonged period of time. notice how they failed to specify the duration of time the studies were carried out...



it takes time for the brain to believe what you are telling it. just saying "i am a good person" for someone with low self-esteem is bound to cause issues with cognitive dissonance and is therefore bound to make that person feel worse because they know they should believe what they are saying but their brains dont agree.



fucking first year psychology...


Your reasoning behind the time the brain needs to rewire is misleading. You are saying that self-directed positive messages need more time and hence the study is flawed. This is not what the study is about. It is about what you get out of reading a book that gives you a positive message. What you said about required time for brain to rewire is true but the study is not debating that. It is debating the efficiency of using books as a source of positive reinforcement. Obviously it doesn't work with people already having self esteem issues because they assess themselves negatively and eventually turn to support groups that don't ask them to perform ritualistic self exaltation.
Lordjavathe3rd
1 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2009
Is it not dishonest to use the term self esteem seeing that it is actually referring to social esteem and the individuals recognition of their reception?

To be quite blunt, I hate you psychologists, I think you're all morons who have had too much time and too little success. Your ignorance regarding the multi-faceted mechanics of human relation are bewildering for the amount of time you've had to study it.

You haven't even throughly explained the situational mechanisms that result in emotions. You're definitions of anger, fear, joy, and so on, are so limited I often wonder if you care about furthering this science or not.
Paradox
2 / 5 (1) Jul 05, 2009

Your reasoning behind the time the brain needs to rewire is misleading. You are saying that self-directed positive messages need more time and hence the study is flawed. This is not what the study is about. It is about what you get out of reading a book that gives you a positive message. What you said about required time for brain to rewire is true but the study is not debating that. It is debating the efficiency of using books as a source of positive reinforcement. Obviously it doesn't work with people already having self esteem issues because they assess themselves negatively and eventually turn to support groups that don't ask them to perform ritualistic self exaltation.


The "Self help" books are designed for long term use, it is not a "Read it once and you're all better" kind of thing.
It kind of makes you're whole reasoning flawed.
Yes
4 / 5 (1) Jul 05, 2009
It all depends on the results. If you see no results then your mood will go down. So in my view in this study they measured tolerance to patience for tangible results in two groups. Probably people with low self esteem lack more patience for results than optimistic people.

I believe strongly that lack of results is one of the most strong factors playing in the acquisition of a low self esteem.

The high self esteem group just see what they already knew confirmed.

The low self esteem group find what they already knew confirmed by no or few results.