The problem with positive pep talks

Eggs_Expressions_Happy_Sad1After centuries of  philosophers, and in more recent times psychologists, coming up their own set of personality factors a symposium in the 1980s settled on what are called the “big five” which are commonly found in  most summaries of personality traits. Four of the traits were supposed to be positive: Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion and agreeableness. The last one, neuroticism, was tied to unpleasant emotions and anxiety.

The four positive traits have not remained as the ideal psychological state. For one thing a person high in openness to experiences seeks novelty and variety which are avoided by the conscientious person who prefers  planning and dependability. Even agreeableness if overdone can result in spinelessness.

Finally, we have come to accept the fact that less energetic and outgoing behavior of an introvert is not a sign of poor mental health, and removed it from the Diagnostic Standard Manual used by mental health professionals. Telling introverts to blurt out everything that comes to their mind and never retreat to solitude does not work because it does not fit their psychological needs. In the same manner it is exhausting for an extrovert to spend hours silently concentrating on work.

However, neuroticsm still has it’s bad reputation. It is often closely linked with a pessimistic life view that is on the look out for the next unpleasant event. So the tendency has been to encourage the “glass half empty” people to pep themselves up with positive self talk. If optimism and pessimism are really parts of a persons disposition, this kind of advice might not be useful at all.

A study from the  University of Waterloo in Canada found that repeating positive affirmations made people who already had low-esteem feel worse about themselves. The group was divided into two, with the control half writing down whatever crossed their mind for 4 minutes. The other half were instructed to do the same thing with the addition of thinking a positive though about themselves each time a bell was rung.  After 4 minutes both groups answered a battery of questions about their mood and self-esteem. People with high self esteem exhibited a more positive mood if they were in the group giving themselves affirming themselves every time the bell rang. But those with low self-esteem were in a better mood if they were allowed to write without the intrusion of the self pep talk.

According to Joanne Wood, the  Lead researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo:

It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.

But have we ever considered that the people with low-esteem are leery of the illusion of positive self-feed back? Not only do they not need it, they do not want it. They may function better in an environment in which a less than optimal view of one self is accepted.

Joanne V. Wood, Ph.D, Should we re-think positive thinking? Giving ourselves pep talks may backfire.Published in Regarding Self-Regard. March 20, 2009



This entry was posted in Mental health, Optimism and Pessimism, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

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