English Language > The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

Repeat after me:

“I will succeed” “I’m powerful, I’m strong and nothing in the world can stop me”

A lot of self-help books tell us to repeat these positive affirmations and visualise

success. But research suggests for some of us, these statements can have a negative effect.

Visualising success can actually cause people to fail.

In one study, participants with high self-esteem and low self-esteem repeated the phrase “I’m

a loveable person”. Researchers then measured their mood and feelings about themselves.

They found phrases that seem positive caused people with low self-esteem to feel worse

about themselves, and people with high self-esteem only felt slightly better.

In a follow up study, the researchers found that when those with low self-esteem were

asked to list negative self-thoughts with positive self-thoughts, their reported mood

was better.

It relates to the concept of “latitudes of acceptance”, that messages closer to

your position or beliefs are more persuasive than messages far from your position.

And messages outside your latitude of acceptance can just backfire, and strongly reinforce

your original position.

Sometimes our psychology causes bad things to happen to good feedback. For some, thinking

“I will succeed” without considering how causes a drop in motivation.

Another study showed that visualising success can drain our ambition.

Participants were asked to visualise positively or negatively about things like winning an

essay competition. Those who visualised positively about their essay-winning prospects reported

having less energy than the negative visualisation group.

And fantasising positively about the coming week led participants to feel less energised

and achieve fewer of their goals compared to the control participants.

Of course our individual differences mean we respond differently to self-help techniques.

Overall, researchers do suggest using more directed affirmations - saying “I select

good gifts for people” rather than “I am a generous person”.

And these positive statements kind of suggest we should only think positive thoughts. Don’t

ruminate on the bad stuff, but consider that the occasional negative thought could be motivational


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