Canadian experts have found that so-called self-help books may actually do more harm than good to people who really need help. Researchers say that individuals with low esteem felt much worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.
In their study, psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee from the University of Waterloo, and Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick, sought to determine how positive thinking affected people with different levels of self-confidence. They questioned dozens of people, both male and female, analyzed their self-worth and optimism by means of the standard psychological methods and then asked them to write down their thoughts and feelings. The scoring system ranged from 0 to 35.
During the first experiment, the investigators asked a total of 68 participants to repeat the self-help book phrase, "I am a lovable person." After that they measured the participants' moods and their feelings about themselves. The results revealed that the participants in the low self-esteem group who repeated the mantra, were feeling much worse afterwards, when compared to other participants in low self-esteem group who did not repeat the phrase. Those with low self-esteem who repeated the phrase scored an average of 10 points. Their counterparts with equally low self-esteem who were not asked to repeat the statement, were able to score a little higher average of 17 points.
However, individuals with high self-esteem reported feeling better after repeating the positive self-statement - but only slightly. They scored an average of 31 points, compared with an average of 25 for those with equally high self-esteem who did not repeat the phrase.
In the experiment number two, the psychologists asked the study subjects to list both negative and positive thoughts about themselves. The study found that, paradoxically, the participants with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative self-thoughts than when they were asked to concentrate just on positive thoughts about themselves.
Joanne Wood, Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and a principal author of the study, said that it seemed that repeating a positive phrase worked only if it reinforced the idea which the person already believed. It might be that positive self-statements remind people that they are not measuring up to important standards and that they should only have positive thoughts, the author said.
Professor Wood urged those who promote self-help books, magazines and television shows to stop telling people that simply repeating a positive mantra could change one's life. First, people start following this ideas and feel like they are not alone. The are told that all they have to do is just to read that book and then to repeat these positive statements in a hope that things will be better, and when it does not work for them and they realize that nothing gets better, then it is really frustrating to people, Prof. Wood said.
Researchers concluded: 'Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people such as individuals with high self-esteem but backfire for the very people who need them the most.'
The study, entitled Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, is published in the Psychological Science, which is a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.