Do Positive Affirmations Work?

“I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”  - Stuart Smalley

Gen Xers might remember Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley.  He liked to look in the mirror and repeat affirmations that were a bit on the pathetic side.  But then, maybe all affirmations feel a little . . . ingenuine? But who cares if they really work. But do they work, like, for normal people?

The research is a muddle but getting clearer by the day.  First off, it might depend on what type of person you are already - high esteem, low esteem, stressed out -- but, it even more so depends on what type of affirmation you spout.

Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick recently published their research, Positive Self Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, which 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 low-esteem group felt worse after repeating statements such as, “I’m a loveable person.” Researchers think this is because these highly positive statements can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem because they are in such strong conflict with the person’s self-perception

But Carnegie Mellon University recently found that self-affirmation can help student’s problem-solving performance; at least in those feeling chronic stress. Students under high levels of chronic stress solved about 50 percent fewer problems than control subjects. However, a brief self-affirmation activity was effective in eliminating the deleterious effects of chronic stress on problem-solving performance.

"People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them," Creswell said. "It's an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high pressure performance situation."”

So, do they work, or don’t they?

One set of researches claims to understand why some affirmations work, as was the case in the Carnegie Mellon study, while others do not. Geoffrey L. Cohen, Professor in Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, Department of Psychology and David Sherman, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara think the key factor is the type of affirmation.

In their research and corresponding paper, The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention, they learned that value affirmations -- where a subject is able to affirm their value generally in a life area -- specifically reinforces an “immune system” of sorts that is our sense of self and well being.

When a subject was able to affirm, or remind themselves of their worth, in any area of their lives (unrelated to the threat at hand), they were able to diminish their stress and improve their outcome during a stressful task.

For example, before giving an impromptu speech to a judgemental audience, some subjects first wrote about their values and what was going well in their lives. Such as, “I am a good Father or I do useful volunteer work at church.”

Doing this diminished their cortisol levels before and during the speech. Cohen and Sherman theorize that having a person reflect on what’s going well and what makes them a good person, generally, assures them they can cope overall in life and with the stressor at hand. It essentially allows them to get a better perspective on the threat and on their self.   

So, when you face a challenging experience in life that brings you down and makes you question your self worth, don’t pull a Stuart Smalley. Instead, write down what matters to you in life and what you do well, so you can gain perspective and get beyond the current threat or problem.

Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited