affirmations and research

a little while ago, a paper was published that suggests that positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

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.

ray at the affirmation spot has an interesting discussion of this. let me add a few more thoughts.

as ray points out, it looks like the researchers didn’t quite know how affirmations are best used (and i think that ray’s suggestion of how the research might be conducted next time are fabulous). unfortunately, this happens more than occasionally in social science research. from what i can tell, that can come from a) truly not having a good understanding of the research subject and b) some of the traditional methodologies in social science research.

as for a), my husband, an avid poker player, often complains about that. he is very interested in psychology and enjoys participating in poker-related research. almost all of the time, however, he finds that psychologists who research poker have little understanding of the game, not appreciating, for example, that many serious poker players don’t approach it as a game of chance (like roulette, for example) but as a game of skill. consequently, the researchers ask questions that are irrelevant to these serious poker players and therefore end up with irrelevant results. i wonder whether that was similar in the research ray talks about.

regarding methodologies used, we need to keep in mind that experimental research as it traditionally carried out needs to be tightly controlled, which means that the more variables are introduced into an experiment, the less control there is possible – which in turn means that researchers like to have as few variables as possible (i.e. they just use one question). there are some good uses of experimental research – the famous pavlovian dog, for instance, has spawned some truly remarkable work – but experimental research also has its limits. perhaps using this methodology was not the best one for the topic of affirmations. that, of course, poses a problem – experimental research is often seen as the only methodology that will give reliable results.

on the other hand, i think it’s important that these topics are taken under the microscope of research and science. i would not be sitting here on this laptop that is a hundred times faster than the first million-dollar computer i ever worked with if it was not for science, and you wouldn’t be reading it on your iPhone or on facebook. science is a great treasure. the argument “affirmations have worked for me, so this research is bogus” is not – not, not, not – valid. qualitative experimental research is about statistics and probabilities and the question is not, “did/do/will affirmations work for joe?” but, “for how many of these 100 people did affirmations work, and does this give us reason to believe that they will work for an equal percentage of a given population in the future?”

in the end, we need to figure out how we would like to use this research. if affirmations have worked for you and perhaps also your clients, great. you can just look at this research and say, “hm, interesting, doesn’t seem to apply to me.” on the other hand, if you have found that affirmations haven’t always delivered what you had hoped, perhaps this research has a clue to what’s going on. note the “perhaps”. that’s what research and other sources of knowledge (and maybe even wisdom) are – little pieces of a puzzle that sometimes but not always show us the way to a bit more understanding.

7 thoughts on “affirmations and research

  1. Che Garman

    Great post! I have been following this research, and I think I may have an answer as to why affirmations sometimes work and other times seem to make things worse. I believe the problem arises when practioners attempt to go directly from negative self-talk to positive affirmations – which is often the case.

    I have written about this on my blog – Affirm Your Life. I believe it is important to determine which level we should start affirming at. By knowing what level a current belief lies, we can create affirmations to raise that belief in small, successful steps (instead of jumping from negative self-talk to affirmations of being, such as “I am…”)

    Please see “The 8 Levels of Affirming” at http://bit.ly/xfE0O for more information, and let me know what you think.

  2. Evan

    The reduction to one factor is a big problem for researching these kinds of things I think.

    The idea that all the little factors will one day add up is a misunderstanding I think. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.

    To get research that is clinically useful (ie. can deal with complexity) is a huge challenge – one that it looks like this research doesn’t meet.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..Seven Questions About Strength and Weakness =-.

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  4. Ray Davis

    Isabella,

    Thank you for the mention and for adding very useful points to this discussion. Your husband’s poker story is analogous to my feelings about this study.

    While I think the research team is serious and well-meaning, I do not believe they possessed an adequate understanding of the topic to devise an effective study.

    I have personally invited the lead researcher to have further dialogue and have offered my experience and expertise to contribute to continuing this research.

    While I do not believe affirmations need the validation of science for the many people they have helped; I think having scientific support would open the door to many who might be skeptical.

    To date, I have not heard back from Dr. Wood about pursuing further research. She has been kind enough to conduct dialogue via email. I can say that she was even a bit surprised by the way the media covered her research.

    I remain hopeful that more research can be done with the collaboration of scientists and those with expertise in affirmations.

    Ray Davis
    Founder, The Affirmation Spot
    .-= Ray Davis´s last blog ..Turning Doubt Into a Useful Tool – The Affirmation Spot for Monday October 19, 2009 =-.

  5. Josh

    What a great topic. I believe it is important to draw light to the research being done regarding affirmations. Like you said, one of the issues that I find with the research is the researchers familiarity with the topic. In my research work, I always become intimately familiar with the subject matter prior to conducting the research.

    Those of us in the business of facilitating growth, understand that there are many different techniques. This applies to affirmations as well. In order for a broad based conclusion on the effectiveness to exist, one would have to test the various techniques. All that I was able to discern was a seperation between those with high or low self-esteem. I have found that the precursor to the effectiveness is not the self-esteem of the participant, but rather whether or not they believed the affirmations could help.

    As for different techniques as to how to make them more effective, I address these on my blog-
    http://mindfulmeasures.blogspot.com/2009/10/advanced-affirmation-techniques.html
    I would be curious to find out what others experiences have been with these techniques.

  6. Self Esteem

    I have had many positive results doing daily affirmations, and believe they are magic. I found your article looking to improve some of my own and this article has some very well written affirmations and good tips about emotion. Emotion is key but repetitiveness often helps achieve that emotion. Well done!
    Self Esteem Affirmations

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