Episode 104: Can Positive Affirmations Improve Your Self Esteem?

Can positive affirmations help raise your self esteem? People use daily affirmations and money affirmations to help them feel more confident, build their self esteem and bring positive events into their lives. But do they really work? If not, then what will? We explore these questions in this episode of The Psych Files.


We propose that, contrary to popular belief, positive self-affirmations can be useless for some people, even though they may benefit others. They may even backfire, making some people feel worse rather than better. – Wood, et. al, 2009

Affirmations and Self Esteem

  • Wood, J.V., Perunovie, E., & Lee, J.W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20, 860-865.
  • The idea of latitudes of acceptance was mentioned in this podcast as being one of the reasons why people with low self esteem would probably not be influenced by positive affirmations. This idea is part of what is called Social Judgment Theory.

  • My previous episode on self-esteem which you may find helpful was episode 9, "How Do You Really Raise Self Esteem? The Incredibles vs. American Idol"
  • Another episode that might be of interest is the one in which I discuss positive thinking and positive psychology, including the ideas of Aaron Beck, Martin Seligman and Albert Ellis.
  • I also have an episode on how some people use positive thinking to run away from their feelings


Episode 64: A Scientist Goes Looking for a Self Help Book….

Self Help books: why are there so many out there? How do you choose? Can they cure depression? Help you lose weight? Stop smoking? Can they replace psychotherapy? Find out how to weed out the best self-help book from all the others. Here’s a list of the top 14 things that really bother psychologists or any scientists about self-help books.

Self Help Books – When NOT to Trust Them

  1. Make Outlandish claims with no science to back them up (ex: can cure illnesses and lose weight and stop smoking, etc.). Remember that “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”.
  2. Depend on anecdotes and testimonials. Problems with this:
    • Self-serving bias: people take personal credit when things go well in their lives
    • Hindsight Bias: success is judged by looking backward: even psychotherapy can’t be confidently judged as having been helpful in this way (feeling better could be the result of maturation or simply cognitive dissonance)
    • Fundamental attribution error: we think other people are successful because of their internal traits
    • An article was recently published in Scientific American which sheds some light on why anecdotes and testimontials are so convincing. The article is called How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results and was written by well-known skeptic Michael Shermer. Here’s a quote:
      …we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. So it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.


  3. Claim that "everything happens for a reason": or "nothing happens by chance". Problem: confirmation bias and hindsight bias – we look for information that confirms our beliefs.
  4. Propose solutions to human problems that are too simplistic: “Happiness is a choice”, or (from the movie “The Natural”): “Losing is a disease” or, “Thoughts are habits – you just have to change your habit.”
  5. Make unfalsifiable claims: “you succeed or you fail because of your thoughts” (prob: “you weren’t thinking positively enough”), “I create my reality”, “I create everything in my life.”
  6. Use no references or citations: there has been a lot of research on what makes people happy. Why wouldn’t a self help book discuss some of these findings? Also, some books don’t give credit to the founders and developers of the concepts that are discussed in these books: Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, or Martin Seligman.
  7. Reference something that is not measurable: ex: law of attraction, law of abundance, law of prosperity, or refer to some “force”.
  8. Make statements that can result in blaming the victim. Ex: “That person failed because he/she didn’t think positively enough.”
  9. Make references to authority figures – the Buddha, Christ, shamans, ancient priests, Hopi Indians, etc., and claim that they would all agree with you. It’s not that such people didn’t understand some trughts about life, but is the author hiding behind these people – hoping that no one would attack them because that would mean attacking these famous people. Also, just because someone famous said it doesn’t make it true.
  10. Give out ordinary advice wrapped around a lot of flowery language. Examples: “work hard”, “set high goals”, “learn from your mistakes”, “give customers more than they expect”, etc. – you don’t need to refer to a “law” or some “force” for this advice to work. It’s just plain good advice. Scientists prefer parsimony – the simplest explanation for events.
  11. Have a “slick salesman” appearance: frequent requests for money or subscription to other services.
  12. Mis-represent psychology: “It’s a fundamental law in psychology that you get more of whatever you focus on.” There is no such law.
  13. Overemphasize the role of your thoughts. Your thoughts may not be the cause of your sad feelings. You may need to look inside and examine some emotional trauma, crisis or poor parenting. Or, if you can change some undesirable behavior your thoughts may change as a result. Or, your negative thoughts may be the result of a biochemical imbalance.
  14. Claim that positive thinking can address serious mental illnesses like chronic depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders or PTSD.


Conclusion

  • Why do we like self-help books? They give us a sense of control over our lives. There’s a lot of randomness in life. Bad things happen to good people. That can be a scary thought.
  • It’s uplifting, it’s comforting to listen and to read these books.
  • Humans are pattern seekers – we see patterns even when they don’t exist.
  • We like to feel that life has meaning.
  • Our biases (self-serving, hindsight, fundamental attribution error, etc.) lead us astray.
  • Human behavior is multi-determined and complex
  • Critical thinking is hard. There is value in being a critical thinker; in thinking like a scientist. Some self help books promote “mushy thinking” which can make you gullible. You’re less gullible when you think critically.

Recommendations

  • Apply the ideas above and do your own evaluation. Lots of self-help books so have good ideas.
  • Look for a book that has citations in the back or which discusses the research. You really can study happiness and a lot of research has been done on what helps to make people feel good about themselves. There is plenty of research to cite.
  • Understand the limitations of self help books. They probably are not going to help with serious psychological illnesses.

Correction

My colleague professor Blaine Peden pointed out to me that there actually are more than laws in psychology than the two I mention in the episode. Some additional ones include:

  • The Gestalt Laws of Perception (similarity, pragnanz, etc.): as Dr. Peden points out: “At best these are qualitative, and there status as laws is up for debate (but they are listed as such in many textbooks–both introductory and for perception courses)”. I can’t believe I forgot about these Gestalt laws. You can learn more about them in a popular video episode of The Psych Files called Lemon Slices and a New Face on Mars! Gestalt Principles at Work
  • Emmert’s Law: a quantitative relationship regarding the size of an after image and its distance to a surface. Here’s a link to another description from wikipedia.
  • Matching Law: Dr. Peden: Richard Herrnstein published the quantitative statement and it is supported by a large operant literature. More on this law in wikipedia.


Episode 46: Thinking Positively – or Running Away from Your Feelings?

What’s wrong with thinking positively? Could be a lot (see this recent article The Power of Negative Thinking). Let’s take another look at the “positive psychology” movement in this episode of The Psych Files podcast. I’ll share some ideas for bringing about more positive events in your life, talk about social comparison theory, and then discuss how important “negative” – that is sad – feelings are in our lives. Those are moments not to run from, but to embrace.

Resources For This Episode

Social Comparison Theory

  • Definition: whenever we are uncertain about ourselves, our skills, our talents, etc., we tend to compare ourselves to other people. Typically we compare to people similar to ourselves in some way (same age, similar background, belong to the same group for example). But we can make upward and downward comparison.
  • Upward Comparison: you compare your self to someone who is either older, more experienced, more talented, more well off, etc. Comparisons of this type will probably make you feel worse about yourself.
  • Downward Comparison: the opposite of the above: you compare yourself to someone who is less fortunate than you. These comparisons will probably remind you of how fortunate you are and will make you feel better about yourself.

Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. – The Power of Negative Thinking

Sad Songs mentioned in this episode

  • Played at the end of the episode: the “Intermezzo” from the opera Cavaleria Rusticana by Mascagni.
  • O Mio Babbino Caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Puccini
  • The Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven
  • Tristesse by Chopin
  • Lakme Duet (also called the Flower Duet) from the opera Lakme by Delibes
  • Claire de Lune by Debussey
  • Feel free to suggest other beautiful sad songs in your comments to this post!