Does self help actually help? Apparently not as much as the self-help industry would like to think. Recent research published in Psychological Science shows that repeating positive statements about oneself, which is a common self-help strategy, doesn’t always increase self esteem.

Researchers asked people to repeat positive statements about themselves, such as “I am a lovable person”. They found that people who had low self esteem to begin with actually felt worse about themselves afterwards. (People with high self esteem felt just marginally better after repeating these statements.) In a second study, one group of people was asked to think only about a positive self statement, while another group was asked to think about the positive self statement as well as times when the statement was true and untrue (e.g., the statement might be “I am lovable”, and they were asked to think about times when they felt lovable _and_ times when they were not lovable). Interestingly, when people who had low self esteem thought about times when the statement was true _and_ times when statement was not true, they actually had better mood, slightly higher self-esteem, and were happier than people who only thought of the positive statement.

The authors of the study wrote: “positive self-statements have more impact on people with low self-esteem than on people with high self-esteem, and that the impact on people with low self-esteem is negative [...] positive self-statements are especially likely to backfire for the very people they are meant to benefit: people with low self-esteem.”

What struck me about this study was how much positive self statements and their relationship to the person resemble the Law. It’s not a perfect parallel, and the study was not written (nor is it intended to be read) as an illustration of the Law. But just as positive self-statements (which are supposed to increase self esteem) backfire with people who need it the most, the Law (which is supposed increase obedience) also backfire on people who need to, but are not obeying the Law.

(Article citation: Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20, 860-866.)