Positive affirmations don’t work!

…all of the time. Forgive the title, I’m experimenting with controversial post titles. More on that another day.

Today the topic is self-help again, and if you’ve read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I take a skeptical attitude towards the self-help industry. A quick inspection of the self-help section of a bookstore will explain why – some of these books are just plain ridiculous.

As I mentioned in the self-help industry and the self-help book reader’s guide, my main problem with this industry is the fact that the authors feel they have the right to make outrageous claims that they can’t back up with solid evidence. Sometimes they’ll give a few anecdotes of times their advice worked – as if that’s supposed to mean something – but often, all you get is pure unsubstantiated opinion, in-between layers of hyperbole.

So take positive affirmations, for example. You might think “Do you really need evidence? Isn’t it just so obviously true?” The answers are yes you do really need evidence and, no, it’s not obviously true. Just because something is highly ingrained into our modern parlance doesn’t make it true. How a woman carries her baby during pregnancy does not predict the sex of the child. Walking under a ladder isn’t unlucky. No one ever went blind from, well, you know.

But sometimes these ideas make such pure, unadulterated, intuitive sense, that you can’t help getting swept along. This theory goes like this: If you want to feel happy with yourself and where you’re going, you have to program your mind to think that way. The way to do this, is through affirmation – you repeat, sometimes in your head, sometimes out loud, a positive statement, over and over again. Eventually, your subconscious mind takes this as truth, and you start to feel the way you’ve been affirming.

The classic affirmation is “every day in every way I’m getting better and better,” but you could try “I am extremely happy,” “I am loved by everyone,” “I am always confident”, or whatever.

It makes sense doesn’t it? Say positive things to yourself, feel positive. Keep saying them, keep feeling positive. Sort of a priming effect. So simple. So neat and tidy. And everyone else believes it. Don’t tell me it’s not true!

Some research in this area says that it isn’t…at least not always. A study last year had two groups of people complete a different task each. One did a free-writing exercise for a few minutes, the other said a positive affirmation (“I am a loveable person”) several times each minute for the same time period. Then, measures of mood and self-esteem were taken.

They certainly do their affirmations… (Credit)

What happened? For people with high self-esteem, it worked – the high self-esteem people in the affirmation group did end up in a better mood than the free-writing group. But the people with low self-esteem actually ended up in a *worse* mood than the free-writing control group!

The suggestion is that saying the positive statements only served to highlight, by contrast, just how poor an opinion the low self-esteem people had of themselves.

This research is not conclusive, of course. There’s more work to be done to discover the individual differences that make a certain technique work for some and not for others – there may be more things interacting with affirmations than just self-esteem.

So should you do positive affirmations? This one study says that if you’re already high in self-esteem, this might be a useful mood booster. If you’re not, don’t bother.

However, as always in science the results only support the findings under the exact conditions under which the study was conducted, and there were a few limitations to this one, for example:

  • Only one affirmation was tested: different affirmations may work for low self-esteem people
  • We are not sure what would happen to low self-esteem people after a longer intervention than 4 minutes (could be better, could be even worse)

But for me, the key point of all this is that the affirmation tested was lifted directly from a self-help book. The author promoted a one-size fits all solution, which was not found to be the case in this study.

I’m not trying to promote a negative attitude towards the self-help industry – as fun as that would be. If this study says anything, it just says that it’s unwise to accept something because it seems to ‘make sense.’ Sometimes the truth is a little more complicated.


Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science

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