In the last 50 years, people with mental problems have spent untold millions of hours in therapists’ offices, and millions more reading self-help books, trying to turn negative thoughts like “I never do anything right” into positive ones: “I can succeed.” For many people including well-educated, highly trained therapists, for whom “cognitive restructuring” is a central goal the very definition of psychotherapy is the process of changing self-defeating attitudes into constructive ones.
But was Norman Vincent Peale right Is there power in positive thinking A study just published in the journal Psychological Science says trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are.
The study’s authors, Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick, begin with a common-sense proposition: when people hear something they don’t believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position. A great deal of psychological research has shown this, but you need look no further than any late-night bar debate you’ve had with friends: when someone asserts that Sarah Palin is brilliant, or that the Yankees are the best team in baseball, or that Michael Jackson was not a freak, others not only argue the opposing position, but do so with more conviction than they actually hold. We are an argumentative species.
And so we constantly argue with ourselves. Many of us are reluctant to revise our self-judgment, especially for the better. In 1994, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won’t think he’s any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber. In one fascinating 1990s experiment demonstrating this effect called “cognitive dissonance,” in official terms a team including psychologist Joel Cooper of Princeton asked participants to write hard-hearted essays opposing funding for the disabled. When these participants were later told they were compassionate, they felt even worse about what they had written.
For the new paper, Wood, Lee and Perunovic measured 68 students on their self-esteem. The students were then asked to write down their thoughts and feelings for four minutes. Every 15 seconds during those four minutes, one randomly assigned group of the students heard a bell. When they heard it, they were supposed to tell themselves, “I am a lovable person.”
Those with low self-esteem precisely the kinds of people who do not respond well to positive feedback, but tend to read self-help books or attend therapy sessions encouraging positive thinking didn’t feel better after those 16 bursts of self-affirmation. In fact, their self-evaluations and moods were significantly more negative than those not asked to remind themselves of their lovability.
This effect can also occur when experiments are more open-ended. The authors cite a 1991 study in which participants were asked to recall either six or 12 examples of instances when they behaved assertively. “Paradoxically,” the authors write, “those in the 12-example condition rated themselves as less assertive than did those in the six-example condition. Participants apparently inferred from their difficulty retrieving 12 examples that they must not be very assertive after all.”
Wood, Lee and Perunovic conclude that unfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.
The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.
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