EP 176: Why You Hate Psychology – Self Esteem Movement and Positive Thinking

PositiveThinking Why do so many people have strongly negative feelings about the field of psychology? I think there are a handful of reasons and in this episode I talk about two of them: the so-called “self-esteem movement” and the “positive thinking” movement. Are psychologists responsible for why “kids today” appear to be so self-centered? Do psychologists think that changing yourself is as simple as just changing the way you think? Hear one psychologists opinion on this and my explanation on two reasons why I think maybe you hate psychology. Just hear me out.


Reason 1: Why You hate Psychology: the Self Esteem Movement

The idea that we should let people know that they are important and good was indeed popularized in psychology during the humanistic psychology movement with Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. The idea is that if you are right environment – one which emphasizes unconditional positive regard, then you will be able to freely explore the issues that are keeping you from becoming your best self (self actualization in Maslow’s term). This idea spread to the world of education and somehow morphed into the idea that we should tell all students that they are special. While it’s true that some popular psychology books did emphasize this idea, it is definitely NOT embraced by all psychologists (see the article by psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell below). A more realistic picture of how to improve self esteem is provided in episode 9 of The Psych Files.


Reason 2: The Positive Thinking Movement

It’s true that there is WAY too much emphasis on positive thinking when it comes to how to feel better about yourself. It would appear that thinking positively will cure just about anything. This is a distortion on what psychologists would refer to as positive psychology. Psychologists like Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis and Martin Seligman did indeed focus on how realistic your thinking is and how unrealistic and negative thought patterns can lead to depression, but their solution is not simply to “think positive thoughts”. The Secret and the Law of Attraction is NOT psychology – although they can seem to have the “ring” of psychology and psychology does have a lot to say about how to get a positive attitude. Positive affirmations is also not part of the true field of psychology. Listen to episode 46 for more of my opinion on the potential dangers of positive thinking.

Why People Hate Psychology


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 9: How Do You Really Raise Self-Esteem? The Incredibles vs. American Idol

How do you really raise self esteem? This week we take a look at all the talk about young people, narcissism and the self esteem movement. Then we answer the question: how do you raise self esteem?


Show Notes

Quick Summary of major points:

How self esteem grows:

  1. Doing well (achieving your goals), on
  2. Tasks that you value (are important to you)

How to give effective praise:

  1. Be sincere
  2. Don’t praise too frequently
  3. Be specific – help your child learn what strategies lead to success
  4. Be careful about attributing success to “smarts” – that can backfire. Try to focus on the effort that went into success

Links mentioned in this episode:

  • You’ll love the movie The Incredibles. Look for the various references to self esteem throughout the movie.
  • Another review of The Incredibles which also points out the references to the controversy over self esteem.

  • Here’s the link to the article entitled, “How Not To Talk to your Kids” by Po Bronson which addresses the self esteem issue.
  • Here’s the link to Po Bronson’s great book “What Should I Do With My Life?” on Amazon: What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question
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