Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Positive Affirmations: Friend or Foe?

This morning I conducted a search for “positive affirmations” on These are positive statements individuals repeat to themselves in order to impress the message on their subconscious, convince themselves of the statement’s validity, and by extension bring about positive change. The website popped out 615 books relevant to positive affirmations. This tells me that 1) people are clearly writing about positive affirmations, and 2) if such an abundance of books on positive affirmations are getting published, clearly readers are out there buying the books and employing these affirmations in their everyday lives. 

While positive affirmations are used to bring change on many fronts, from money making, to weight loss, to public speaking, today I’m going to focus solely on positive self-statements, which are affirmations made about the self and are designed to boost positive self-feelings or self-esteem. For example, an individual with more negative self-views, or low self-esteem, might practice looking in a mirror and saying: “I am lovable” or “I am a good person worthy of love and affection.”  These positive self-statements, if repeated over time, are presumed to convince the individual that the statements are true and by extension boost the individual’s self-esteem.

Although positive self-statements are encouraged by self-help books across the globe, there has been limited scientific research evaluating their efficacy in actually producing the boosts in self-esteem they are designed to achieve. In 2009, however, Dr. Joanne Wood, a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tackled this question in a series of two studies (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009).

All participants started by completing a background measure of trait self-esteem – how they generally feel about themselves. Participants were then divided into a low self-esteem group and a high self-esteem group. Half of the low self-esteem and half of the high self-esteem participants were then assigned to a “positive self-statements” condition, and the other half of participants were assigned to a “no self-statements” condition.

All participants spent four minutes writing about any thoughts or feelings they were currently experiencing. Participants in the positive self-statements condition additionally repeated the statement “I am lovable” every 15 seconds during the four minute period, while those in the no self-statements condition simply proceeded with the writing task. Afterward participants rated their mood and their state self-esteem – how they were feeling about themselves right at that moment.

As expected, in the no self-statements condition low self-esteem participants were in a worse mood than high self-esteem participants, and also had lower state self-esteem. Interestingly, however, in the positive self-statements condition, after repeatedly saying “I am lovable,” low self-esteem participants were in an even worse mood and had even lower state self-esteem than those participants in the no self-statements condition. The affirmation backfired! WHY?

Wood and colleagues actually anticipated this effect. They hypothesized that for low self-esteem participants, it might be difficult to only think positive self-thoughts. Trying to focus on why they are lovable, might instead bring up unfavorable thoughts, such as why they aren’t lovable. This in turn would make participants feel like they were not living up to the standards of the study, that they were a failure at the task of thinking positively. This failure would then lead participants to feel bad, and to think even worse thoughts about themselves.

To evaluate this hypothesis, Wood conducted a second study, in which participants were instructed to think about reasons why the statement “I am lovable” was both true and untrue. Here, if negative thoughts came up, participants would no longer feel like they were “failing” the task. Low self-esteem participants who were allowed to think about why they were both lovable and unlovable no longer showed that fall in mood and state self-esteem found in the previous study, though they didn't appear to show a boost in self-esteem either.

In sum, Wood and colleagues found that positive self-statements backfired for her low self-esteem participants. After repeating “I am lovable,” their mood and state self-esteem dropped. Presumably this is because negative thoughts continued to crop up. That they couldn't keep negative thoughts out then made participants feel like a failure. When the affirmation allowed for both positive and negative components participants didn't experience that drop.

So, what does this work tell us overall? First, the efficacy of other forms of positive affirmations was not tested. How well these statements work to increase money making or weight loss should be evaluated. Though often touted in pop culture as a cure for self-esteem blues, this study demonstrated that positive self-statements may not live up to their reputation. Directing participants to repeat a statement inconsistent with their own self-thoughts didn’t seem to change their beliefs. It didn't boost their self-esteem or mood. It also reminds us of the importance of using science to evaluate and challenge lay theories and approaches that
appear in pop culture.

While this study showed that the positive self-statement, "I am lovable" did not boost self-esteem, are there other methods out there that have had better results? Can self-esteem change? How can we help people feel better about themselves? Next week, I’ll present a series of intervention studies that have had success. Stay tuned.

Have you used positive affirmations? Have they helped you to achieve goals or feel better about yourself? Do you have any other ideas why positive self-statements may backfire?

The article:
Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x


  1. It seems that the power of intention is missing from the study. Do the participants believe the affirmations are going to work? Do they intend to make a change in their life? I suspect that there-in is the key to understanding personal growth, and affirmations are just one vehicle that people try.

  2. Hi Aaron-
    This is a good critique of the study; in fact a good critique of many "failed" intervention studies aimed at boosting self-esteem. It is unclear how motivation to change impacts the efficacy of positive affirmations or other intervention methods. This is definitely an avenue that future research should explore. If, readers, you know of any studies looking at these factors let the rest of us know! Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply!

  3. I would suggest that people with low self esteem have most likely been using negative self-talk for such a long time, it would take sustained and repeated positive affirmation over a period of time to see successful results.

    Negative self talk perpetuates negativity, and individuals with low self esteem need to break this habit and replace it with the more healthier habit. The habitual practice would take some time to form and longer still to take effect.

  4. I am in complete agreement. Future studies should assess whether the detrimental impact of positive affirmations is reversed when repetitions continue over the long-term. Thanks for reading!

    1. This is an excellent point!

      I have been using self-suggestions (affirmations) for more than 40 years and would like to make a couple of points.

      Firstly, I agree that repetition is absolutely essential. If you use an affirmation just a few times (e.g., when you hear a doorbell – like in the discussed paper), I would not expect any significantly positive effect. Quite to the contrary, I would rather expect an immediate negative effect, as such occasional affirmations simply draw your attention to the problem, thus inadvertently emphasising it in your mind. In my experience, to achieve positive outcomes, an affirmation session should be at least ~ 20 min (with numerous repetitions of specific affirmations).

      Secondly, the affirmation sessions should be designed similar to self-hypnosis or meditation sessions – in a relaxed and comfortable situation with little external interference (with no doorbells, no expectation of doorbells, no writing, etc. – this interfering procedure in the discussed paper was very likely to decrease the efficiency of affirmations).

      Thirdly, the regularity of the sessions is also very important.

      Fourthly, affirmations should be combined with continuing mental concentration on the affirmations and their meanings. If you say something to yourself (in your thoughts) without meaning what you say, or you do this while thinking about something else, this would not be of great help. You really need to concentrate on the affirmations and mean what you think.

      The successful application of this technique to achieve significant immunomodulation was described for a case study:
      Gramotnev, D. K., Gramotnev, G. 2011. “Psychological stress and psychosomatic treatment: Major impact on serious blood disorders?”, NeuroImmunoModulation, vol.18, 171-183.

  5. You are saying what I have long thought. People waste a lot of time with self-help techniques that don't work.

  6. One of the distinctions coaches make about self-defeating beliefs or behaviors is that at one time or another these things were survival mechanisms.

    For example:

    I learned as a child that if I talked badly about myself when I made a mistake, my family would give me encouragement. But if I did not say I was stupid or that an action was dumb, they would kindly oblige me by providing the negative talk from their end. Therefore, as a child I learned that if I quickly criticized myself, I received validation. When I started school, others were not so encouraging. Instead I was criticized for the negative self-talk. To me this was confusing. Since I still lived with my family and wanted their validation, I thought it was a good idea to keep my negative talk limited to my internal dialog when not at home. The predictable result was that I began to experience low self-esteem.