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Can self-help be bad for you?

3 Post author: Tom_Talbot 07 July 2009 08:40PM

From the NHS Behind the Headlines blog:


“Self help makes you feel worse,” BBC News has reported. It says that the growing trend of using self-help mantras to boost your spirits may actually have a detrimental effect. The news comes from Canadian research, which found that people with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.


Although positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, they have not been widely studied, and their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. This experimental study sought to investigate the contradictory theory that these statements can be harmful.

The researchers had a theory that when a person feels deficient in some way, making positive self-statements to improve that aspect of their life may highlight the discrepancy between their perceived deficiency and the standard they would like to achieve. The researchers carried out three studies in which they manipulated positive self-statements and examined their effects on mood and self-esteem.


Something about the hypothesis sounds familiar:

This experimental research among a group of Canadian university students has found that positive statements may reinforce that positivity among those with high self-esteem, and make them feel even better. But it causes those with low self-esteem to feel worse and to have lower self-esteem.

The researchers say that this theory is based on the idea of ‘latitudes of acceptance’, i.e. messages that reinforce a position close to one’s own are more likely to be persuasive than messages that reinforce a position far from one’s own. As they suggest, if a person believes that they are unlovable and keeps repeating, "I’m a lovable person", they may dismiss this statement and possibly reinforce their conviction that they are unlovable.


What do you think? Is this plausible, or is it an attempt to shoehorn one of those trendy heuristics-and-biases-related hypotheses into a study on self-esteem? If you accept the validity of the study and its conclusion, does it influence LW's Rationalists Should Win self-help philosophy? What if it is literally true that some people are more lovable and some less, and that this has unavoidable effects on self-esteem? Do low self-esteem rationalists need different techniques from those with high self-esteem?

Comments (11)

Comment author: jimrandomh 07 July 2009 10:11:46PM 8 points [-]

The study talks about "positive self-statements"; that is, it asks subjects to repeat positive statements about themselves. This is a very specific action that, apparently, does no good. The NHS and BBC News articles, however, talk about "self help", which is a broad category that includes positive self-statements, but also includes lots of other, different things, which the study says nothing about.

Second, the study measured participants' self-esteem, but did not measure any aspect of their behavior. If positive self-statements lowered self-esteem but increased desired behaviors, then they would be a net benefit. In fact, that is the result I would expect (albeit given the benefit of hindsight).

Comment author: Alicorn 07 July 2009 09:20:15PM 8 points [-]

What has always puzzled me about statements about self-esteem is that it's never seemed, in my case, to be remotely consistent over time. My self-esteem fluctuates wildly depending on the statements of others, my apparently random moods, my physical health, my stress levels, and what I had for breakfast. If the study is right, does that mean I should tell myself nice things when I've just gotten a compliment and feel pretty happy and don't have a cold or too much work and I just ate a stack of pancakes? Or will those statements backfire on me the next time I get a poor grade on a paper or too much work for my energy level?

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 July 2009 02:28:38AM 3 points [-]

What has always puzzled me about statements about self-esteem is that it's never seemed, in my case, to be remotely consistent over time.

Same here... I seem to believe that I'm both a genius and an idiot, that I'm both good at Magic and bad at Magic, and many other such apparent contradictions.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 07 July 2009 09:07:56PM 5 points [-]

"Rationalists should win" isn't a self-help philosophy or a way of improving self-esteem. It's a logical statement about the concept of a rationalist.

Comment author: Tom_Talbot 07 July 2009 09:19:07PM 2 points [-]

Fair enough, but Less Wrong does have a lot of articles about self-help and these do seem to have arisen from early discussions about the meaning of the phrase "rationalists should win".

Comment author: wuwei 08 July 2009 12:22:41AM *  4 points [-]

Yes, but not all self-help needs to involve positive affirmations.

I was going to ask whether repeating positive statements about oneself has actually been recommended on lesswrong. Then I remembered this post. Perhaps that post would have made a more suitable target than the claim that rationalists should win.

Wouldn't a rationalist looking to win simply welcome this study along with any other evidence about what does or does not work?

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 08 July 2009 12:28:19AM 1 point [-]

This is the comic premise of Stuart Smalley ("I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!"), now the Senator from Minnesota.

Comment author: orthonormal 08 July 2009 12:40:56AM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: billswift 08 July 2009 02:10:31AM 0 points [-]

"Self-help" and many of its synonyms are wildly inconsistent terms; so much so that I avoid using them because they have become nearly meaningless. I wrote an essay on general problem solving with a short discussion of books I found particularly useful [http://williambswift.blogspot.com/2009/05/general-method-of-problem-solving.html] and a commenter referred to them as "personal development books" which I considered a pretty silly categorization.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 June 2014 07:13:25AM -1 points [-]

"Positive affirmation has been found to have a detrimental effect on those who need it the most, because people with low self-esteem will perceive the affirmation as so unbelievable that it strengthens their negative mindset. Those who already have high self-esteem feel slightly better, and those who don’t will feel worse than if they had been allowed negative thoughts. When people with high self-esteem uses positive affirmation, it acts as a buffer for constructive criticism that goes against the self-perception, and when people with low self-esteem uses positive affirmation, it rings untrue and therefore brings to mind exactly how they are not successful, loved, etc.[9]" - Wikipedia

Comment author: MineCanary 08 July 2009 09:54:53PM -1 points [-]

What if it is literally true that some people are more lovable and some less, and that this has unavoidable effects on self-esteem?

(my italics)

Well, it's not true that those have unavoidable effects on self-esteem. Some people can see their less-desired traits and not castigate themselves for it, instead accepting it as part of a generally positive picture of themselves. You can also teach people to adopt that mode: It's the basis for some and a huge part of other Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. CBT has a large body of research showing it works.

On a somewhat-related note, does anyone know about Carol Dweck's work on motivation and praise and the like? She found that praising someone for something that they didn't expend effort on was bad for their motivation in the future. (It also increases a belief that static ability determines one's performance--at least in students with relationship to school work.) I've personally been in that situation, of being praised for things I didn't see as an accomplishment--which is essentially being praised for doing or being something you don't feel you did or are--and it feels awful.

Praise is praise FOR something--whether it's hard work in school or a loveable personality--and so you can hear someone praising the trait, and you look at yourself lacking the trait, and it does highlight the difference and make you feel guilty and such, if you're looking at it that way. And I'd say people with low self-esteem are more likely to interpret praise as applying to something external (the trait) and blame as applying to something intrinsic (themselves). /shrugs