Often when a discovery is made in the realm of psychology, it’s disseminated into the mainstream media for wider society to harness and use for their benefit. And rightly so; important advancements should be shared widely for the greater good, not hogged and locked away in exclusivity. A prime example might be the use of positive affirmations, which are positive statements an individual says to themselves in order to challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, while providing encouragement and resolve instead. “I am more than capable of standing up for myself”, “I regularly bring exciting and innovative ideas to the table in my work”, and “I’m effective at completing tasks and projects in a timely manner” are all instances of positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations have certainly been made public, becoming hugely popular as a result. Many people swear by them, claiming that they were instrumental in obtaining career success, greater work and life satisfaction, and a healthier psychological outlook. However, much like Marmite and pineapple-clad pizza, people seem to either love them or hate them. Plenty of questions and challenges over their effectiveness and scientific validity have been levelled from those on the latter side. So, who’s right and who’s wrong?
Issues around positive affirmations have been reported in one particular study carried out by psychologists Joanne Wood, Elaine Perunovic and John Lee (1). They found that people who were low in self-esteem ended up feeling worse about themselves after repeating positive self-affirmations, while those who had medium to high self-esteem reported feeling slightly better. They concluded that positive affirmations may in fact be detrimental, rather than beneficial, for those individuals who may need their supposed benefits most.
Furthermore, the gap between affirmation-induced confidence and actual competence may cause problems. Overconfidence can blind us from seeing dangers and warning signs. In addition, experiences that don’t live up to the scenario envisaged through positive affirmations can end up provoking stress and anxiety, especially if people tend to overreach what’s realistic for them to achieve. If these affirmed beliefs fail to pan out, it may suggest that something is misaligned with an individual’s knowledge of themselves, the world, or both.
This study raises some important issues and demonstrates that it’s not necessarily all sunshine and roses. That said, much more recent research than this has turned the tables in favour of affirmations again. Armed with more sophisticated testing methods and the additional validity of neuroscience, we’ve discovered several benefits:
Positive affirmations do, in fact, have an important impact on self-esteem (2)
In a slightly longer-term study than that mentioned earlier, researchers investigated the impact of affirmations on self-esteem once again. They found that after one week, affirmations did boost the self-esteem of individuals who were previously lower than average, particularly when it comes to issues around their health.
Positive affirmations can reduce the negative impact of stressors (3)
Positive affirmations have been shown to activate the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (VMPFC), one of the reward centres in the brain. As these reward centres reduce the biological impact of stress, it was deduced that positive affirmations can therefore indirectly reduce the impact of stressors, too.
Positive affirmations lead to more prosocial behaviours (4)
Positive affirmations, when based around one’s personal values, triggers greater self-compassion in those who use them. As a knock-on effect, researchers found that these individuals also engage in more prosocial behaviours.
Spontaneous positive affirmation boosts psychological wellbeing (5)
Research shows that spontaneous positive affirmations result in greater happiness, hopefulness, optimism, subjective health, personal health management, while reducing anger and sadness. This had a particular influence for those belonging to minority groups facing hardships and challenges.
Positive affirmations can contribute to regaining balance between the powerful and powerless (6)
It’s been shown that individuals who lack power in situations often demonstrate less inhibitory control and often act impulsively instead. Engaging in positive affirmations actually increases the effectiveness of one’s inhibitory control, thereby potentially playing a role in reducing the performance gap between those with power and those without power.
Modern research stacks up in favour of the effectiveness and usefulness of positive affirmations on a variety of different fronts. For a technique that costs very little, the potential benefits seem to be abundant. That said, we mustn’t discount the work that exposes the negative side to affirmations. Taking it all into account, the verdict would be to try them out; however, allow them time to take hold and don’t overreach with your aims. Positive affirmation, as a result, could be a powerful tool for you to use when you need it.
1. Joanne V. Wood, W.Q. Elaine Perunovic, John W. Lee (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others
2. Camilla Düring, Donna C. Jessop (2015). The Moderating Impact of Self-Esteem on Self-Affirmation Effects
3. Janine M. Dutcher, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Hayoung Woo, William M. P. Klein, Peter R. Harris, John M. Levine, J. David Creswell (2020). Neural Mechanisms of Self-Affirmation's Stress Buffering Effects
4. Emily K. Lindsay, J. David Creswell (2014). Helping the Self Help Others: Self-Affirmation Increases Self-Compassion and Pro-Social Behaviours
5. Amber S. Emanuel, Jennifer L. Howell, Jennifer M. Taber, Rebecca A. Ferrer, William M. P. Klein, Peter R. Harris (2018). Spontaneous Self-Affirmation is Associated with Psychological Well-Being: Evidence from a US National Adult Survey Sample
6. Sumaya Albalooshi, Mehrad Moeini-Jazani, Bob M. Fennis, Luk Warlop (2019). Reinstating the Resourceful Self: When and How Self-Affirmations Improve Executive Performance of the Powerless