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Positive thinking has a negative side

July 5, 2009

One of the assumptions of a number of the more cognitive focused psychological therapies (and self-help books) is that conscious repetition of positive thoughts will counterbalance, perhaps even cancel out negative thought patterns. Recent research finds that this assumption is questionable:

Joanne Wood, Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and an author of the report, said it seemed that repeating positive statements worked only if it reinforced what the person already believed.“It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most,” she said.

“I think that what happens is that when a low-self-esteem person repeats positive thoughts, all they do is contradict what is there already. So if they’re saying, ‘I’m a loveable person’, they might then think, ‘Well, I’m not always loveable’ or ‘I’m not loveable in this way’. Then these contradictory thoughts may overwhelm the positive thoughts.”

Professor Wood said that positive thinking might be effective when it was used as part of a broader programme of therapy. “But on its own it tends to have the reverse effect of what it is supposed to do.”

She urged the purveyors of self-help books, magazines and TV shows to stop sending a message that simply chanting a positive mantra could transform a life. “It’s frustrating to people when they try it and it doesn’t work for them,” she said.

via: Times Online

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