When the going gets tough, thousands of people try to boost their failing self-esteem by repeating positive statements to themselves. Encouraged by magazine columnists, self-help books and talk-show hosts, people prepare for challenges by chanting positive mantras like “I am a strong, powerful person,” and, “Nothing can stop me from achieving my dreams.” This approach has been championed at least as far back as Norman Vincent Peale’s infamous book The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952.
But a new study suggests that despite its popularity, this particular brand of self-help may backfire badly. Ironically, it seems to be people with low self-esteem, who are most likely to rely on such statements, who are most likely to feel worse because of them. Joanne Wood from the University of Waterloo found that people with low self-esteem who repeated “I’m a lovable person” to themselves felt worse than people who did neither.
The effect may be counter-intuitive, but the theory behind it is very straightforward. Everyone has a range of ideas they are prepared to accept. Messages that lie within this boundary are more persuasive than those that fall outside it – those meet the greatest resistance and can even lead to people holding onto their original position more strongly.
If a person with low self-esteem says something that’s positive about themselves but is well beyond what they’ll actually believe, their immediate reaction is to dismiss the claim and draw even further into their own self-loathing convictions. The positive statements could even act as reminders of failure, highlighting whatever gulf someone sees between reality and the standard they set for themselves. In short, someone could repeat “I’m a lovable person” but they’d really be thinking “I’m actually not” or “I’m not as lovable as I should be.” Statements that contradict a person’s self-image, no matter how rallying in intention, are likely to boomerang.
In American high schools, black students typically perform worse than their white peers, which can damage their self-esteem and their future prospects. Studies have found that the fear of living up to this underachieving stereotype can cause so much stress that a child’s performance suffers. Their teachers may even write them off as lost causes, and spend less time on them.
With so many students caught in this vicious cycle, where the stereotype of poor performance strengthens itself, it might seem absurd to suggest that you could turn things round in less than an hour. But try telling that to Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado.
In 2007, he showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students. Now, Cohen returns with a new report of the same experiment two years on.
Things are still looking good. Even though two years have passed, the students are still feeling the benefits of those precious exercises. With the help of a couple of booster sessions, they still felt more confident about their chances of success, their grade point averages had increased (particularly among the weakest students), and the proportion who had to repeat a grade was two-thirds lower.
Cohen originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.