Thursday, July 23, 2009

Positive self statements: power for some, peril for others

Wood et al. offer an interesting article in Psychological Science. They present experiments showing that positive self-statements have the potential to make one feel worse if they lie outside one's latitude of acceptance, are self-discrepant and thereby highlight one's failures to meet one's standards, and arouse self-verification motives. Positive self-statements are especially likely to backfire for the very people they are meant to benefit: people with low self-esteem. Such people, by definition, see themselves as failing to meet standards in more domains or in more important domains than do people with high self-esteem. Moreover, self-verification motives should bias people with low self-esteem to reject positive self-statements, but encourage people with high self-esteem to accept them. Here is their abstract:
Positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. We examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. A survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective. Two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement ("I'm a lovable person") or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true. Among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who "need" them the most.

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