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When Positive Turns Negative

There are some wildly popular self-help approaches that still aren’t supported by evidence. The best known among these is the idea of positive affirmations.

When legendary boxer Muhammad Ali proudly told the world, “I’m the king! I’m the greatest! Ain’t I beautiful? I’m too pretty to be a fighter!” he was doing more than simply reminding his audience what they already knew: that in addition to being an extraordinary boxer (at the time, Feb. 1964, he had been unbeaten in 19 pro fights) he had an epic-sized ego. Now with the benefit of hindsight and neuroscience, we realize that he was also probably helping his performance in the ring. As it happens, the outcome of this particular bout, against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, proved to be one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

Ali’s pronouncement followed a proud tradition of positive affirmations. In a nutshell, positive affirmations suggest that by combining an optimistic attitude with a strong positive statement you can achieve almost any goal. Examples of positive affirmations include “I am a loveable person” or “I am thin and athletic.” The best known affirmation which originated with French psychologist ?mile Cou? and dates back to the 19th century is “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.”

The problem is that for every Muhammad Ali who used positive affirmations to help him succeed there are tens of thousands of needy and well-intentioned individuals for whom these affirmations actually make things worse! Empirical data show that these quick-fix attempts to re-direct your life only work if you already have a healthy self-esteem.In fact, when self-affirmations were used in a stressful testing situation, they actually worked against subjects who had low self-esteem and only helped those who already possessed a positive self-image. Totally the opposite of what you might expect. After all, you would think that people with a high self-opinion wouldn’t need to remind themselves, while those who are insecure could benefit from a little pep talk, even when they themselves are serving as both coach and player.