I am not bald. I am not bald. I am not bald. I am not bald. I am not bald.
If I can just really believe it, then eventually it’s bound to work.
I am not bald. I am not bald…
A researcher, John W. Lee at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, investigated positive statements that you might make about yourself to boost mood and self-esteem. He found that if you make a statement about yourself that contradicts the way you really see yourself, then it makes you feel worse:
…among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”)…felt worse…
But if the statement is in agreement with the way you already see yourself, then it makes you feel a little better:
Among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement…felt better…, but to a limited degree.
So these positive self-statements only work for people who don’t need them! For people who do need them they backfire.
Or, to put it another way, for people who do need them they create dependency by aggravating the problem they were intended to solve — like having another cigarette to ease that cough.
Bad news travels fast
The research paper, Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, was published earlier this year, and it was picked up by some news media. For example, The Economist reported it a few weeks later: Positive thinking’s negative results
At the University of Waterloo, news appears to travel more slowly. John W. Lee completed his thesis The Paradoxical Effect of Positive Self-Statements back in 2005. It does not seem to be available in the university’s online repository.
His supervisor was Professor Joanne Wood, whose name now appears first on the published paper — this is regarded as perfectly normal in academia. Also named on the published paper is Assistant Professor Elaine Perunovic, Director of the Culture and Social Psychology Research Lab. at the University of New Brunswick, nearly a thousand miles away.
Programmes at these two universities offer a wide variety of support to students.
For example, at Waterloo there’s a Graduate Research Skills Seminar:
It is strongly recommended that all incoming graduate students take [the seminar] as soon as possible.
The trouble is, amongst all the practical skills it includes a big glob of mumbo-jumbo supposedly for “stress management” (my highlighting):
…progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, visualization, meditation, thought-stopping and positive self-statements.
While at New Brunswick the counselling service offers students a guide to self-esteem (my highlighting):
- Replace negative self-talk for positive statements and surround yourself with positive people.
Points of view
The significant finding in the research was not that positive self-statements don’t work or make you feel worse if you need them. Everyone knew that anyway.
The significant finding was that they make people who don’t need them feel a little better. People misinterpret this. They think, “If repeating this statement to myself makes me feel a little better, it’s going to make someone who really needs a boost feel a lot better.” But exactly the opposite happens.
These university student services are to some extent planned by well-meaning do-gooders, who design the courses in a way that allows them to feel self-satisfied, even if the resulting service is not optimal for the students who were intended to benefit.
What’s counter-intuitive is that you cannot generalise from your own experience in order to help someone else. As a well-meaning do-gooder you end up imposing a method that causes harm.
If you really want to help someone, you have to understand their world from their point of view. You cannot simply impose your point of view.
Another research paper looks at the same thing from a different angle. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, examined what happens when people get support from other people. It looked at how the support was perceived, and also at the actual outcomes: The Paradox of Received Social Support
People who felt that support was available did better. This was not actual support — just a perception that support was available:
…the perception of available support is associated with positive outcomes…
But people who actually received support, and knew that they were receiving support, sometimes did worse:
…actual support from close others is often associated with negative outcomes.
This did not happen to the same extent when people were unaware that they were receiving support:
…support that is “invisible” (not perceived by the support recipient) is associated with better outcomes than “visible” support.
Again, this can be seen in terms of points of view. By merely promising support, or by supporting someone invisibly, you do not conflict with their point of view and the support is more likely to be effective.
If you support someone visibly, the person has to adjust their point of view in order to take into account your support. So this kind of intrusive support involves a cost to the recipient, which can outweigh the value of the support.
These researchers characterised effective support as being responsive to the recipient’s needs (rather than to the supporter’s needs). This is very similar to the finding about positive self-statements.
Recovery after trauma
A third study, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and elsewhere in the US, looked at an example of this in people recovering from trauma: Does Self-Reported Posttraumatic Growth Reflect Genuine Positive Change?
Subjects were asked to report on their ‘growth’ (meaning the amount of change in themselves) following a traumatic event. The concept of ‘growth’ was imposed by the researchers.
As before, actual outcomes were also measured. In this case the outcome was the person’s level of distress about the traumatic incident.
The imposed measure of ‘growth’ ran counter to actual recovery:
…perceived growth was associated with increased distress…
So again, people who were better at fitting in with the imposed point of view did worse on the outcome measure.
In CBT there’s a temptation for incompetent or insecure therapists to reach for the nearest textbook, look for a theory that seems to fit the patient’s symptoms, and then impose the theory on the patient. In part this is driven by, or excused by, a desire to work in an ‘evidence based’ way.
Common sense, and also emerging research evidence, suggests that this is counter-productive. People can best be helped by being understood as individuals, and therapists need the skills and the confidence to be able to let go of theory and participate in their patients’ worlds.
It worked! I am not bald!