Do Positive Affirmations Work? A Look at the Science

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction specialist, counsellor, and rogue academic committed to making research engaging and accessible for all.

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The self-help genre has popularized positivity as being the superpower of personal development.

We’ve been told we can overcome anything by just thinking positive. Motivational messages from Instagram gurus tell people who are suffering to simply change the way they are feeling as if it were as easy as changing the channel.

Are you suffering from negative thoughts and tired of being told to “just get over it”? Have you tried changing your thoughts without being able to control how you feel? If you’ve tried all of the feel-good self-help methods or advice of well-intentioned coaches and haven’t seen any results, this article will explain why.

Do positive affirmations work?

Positive affirmations do not work for persons trying to boost self-esteem, change negative thoughts, or escape from painful emotions. The evidence suggests positive affirmations only work in individuals who are already positive or high performing. 

In this article, I take a closer look at the psychological literature on the effectiveness of positive affirmations.

I conducted a brief literature review using Google Scholar. I then sorted through the studies based on their major findings, showing when positive affirmations don’t work vs. when they do work.

After exploring when they work and when they don’t work, I provide a more effective alternative to positive affirmations.

Each study is hyperlinked in their title text if you’re interested in further exploration.

Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.

When Positive Affirmations Don’t Work

Affirmations don’t work when people need them the most. 

According to Steven Hayes in A Liberated Mind:

“A recent study showed that positive affirmations like “I’m a good person!” work great as long as we don’t really need them. When we do need them, like when we start feeling bad about ourselves, such affirmations make us both feel and do worse! It’s a cruel joke.”

After tracking down the study cited above, I was able to confirm this finding. The study is titled, Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, and the researchers state:

“Positive self-statements seemed to provide a boost only to people with high self-esteem—those who ordinarily feel good about themselves already—and that boost was small.”

Affirmations don’t work when trying to escape from negative thoughts.

Why is this the case? According to the previously cited study:

“…if people who believe that they are unlovable repeat, ‘‘I’m a lovable person,’’ they may dismiss this statement and perhaps even reinforce their conviction that
they are unlovable.”

If you don’t believe a positive statement about yourself, trying to convince yourself through positive affirmations is like arguing with your brain.

How does your brain respond to arguments? No different than anyone else.

Have you ever tried to change someone’s mind by arguing with them? How did that work out for you?

Let me guess… they immediately changed their mind after rationally weighing the merits of your argument.

Or not.

More likely, they argued back even harder and more aggressively.

Just like everyone else, our mind doesn’t respond well to arguments. It digs its heels in and fights back. Trying to beat your mind into submission with relentless positivity will often backfire, further entrenching it in negativity.

Affirmations don’t work to improve your mood.

In another study titled When Self-Help Materials Help, the researchers found positive affirmations lowered the mood of individuals whose needs were not being met:

“…we found that participants experienced negative mood change after reading positive self-statements, if they have low level of need satisfaction.”

The researchers then compared reading positive statements to listening to them. Interestingly, they actually found a difference:

“…participants experienced a mood boost after listening to positive self-statements…”

They concluded that reading the positive statements caused participants to process it more deeply, causing them to reject it when not in alignment with their existing self-concept, whereas listening to positive statements allows for a more superficial level of processing.

Based on these mixed findings, the authors state:

These findings suggest that self-help materials with a focus on positive self-statements should be used with caution.”

Since positive affirmations don’t work the way we expect, we need to be careful about how we use them so they don’t backfire.

Let’s take a closer look at the research showing how positive affirmations can sometimes work in specific situations.

When Positive Affirmations Work

Affirmations can work if they facilitate social pressure.

In an article titled Social Standard Setting, the researchers had children watch videos teaching them positive affirmation techniques to overcome their fear of the dark. These affirmations seemed to help the children stay in a dark room longer than children who did not use these techniques.

Does this mean the affirmations worked?

The researchers then reran the experiment, with the children not knowing they were being observed as they learned these affirmation techniques. The improvements in coping with the dark immediately went away!

When learning these affirmation techniques in front of the researchers, the children performed better due to social pressure.

The researchers state:

The results are interpreted as showing that in this situation these therapies were effective due to specific social influence mechanisms. When public, the treatments appeared to set up social criteria for improved performance.

Therefore, the children weren’t performing better due to the content of the positive affirmations, themselves.

Although the affirmations were not the direct mechanism leading to improved performance, they were a secondary mechanism leading to social pressure that can improve performance.

Affirmations can work when focused on affirming your existing values.

Building on the results of the previously cited child study, I found another study that might offer further insight into how affirmations may work in relation to social pressure.

The study is titled The Impact of Self-Affirmation on Health-Behavior Change: A Meta-Analysis. The researchers found that affirmations focused on your existing values can lead to increased acceptance of positive health information and change in healthy behaviors:

“Self-affirmation inductions—such as questionnaires or writing exercises that remind participants of their important personal values—may have the potential to reduce defensive resistance to health-risk information.”

The researchers concluded:

“…deploying self-affirmation inductions alongside persuasive health information has positive effects, promoting message acceptance, intentions to change, and subsequent behavior.”

There is an element of social pressure involved here since the affirmations may increase the social pressure to remain consistent with one’s values and self-definition when subsequently receiving health information.

Beyond the social pressure, the study also shows how people strive to remain consistent with their own values and self-definitions.

In a counseling setting, this is perhaps the closest I come to using affirmations. Having someone clearly state their values is helpful by giving them a sense of direction, in addition to increasing motivation for change.

Although this might look a lot like affirmation, I would argue that it’s very different than the ineffective positive affirmation approaches described in the previous studies.

Reminding yourself of your core values in a statement such as, “I value authenticity,” is very different than trying to convince yourself of a specific identity you don’t currently hold.

Affirmations can help improve performance for athletes.

In a study titled, The Effects of Overt Head Movements on Physical Performance After Positive Versus Negative Self-Talk, the researchers found that combining positive affirmations with head-nodding improved performance among athletes:

“…positive self-statements led to better performance than negative self-statements
in 2 out of 3 physical tasks… self-statements are significantly more impactful on physical performance in the headnodding condition than in the head-shaking condition.”

So do affirmations work?

Recall the studies cited at the beginning of this article. Affirmations only work for those who don’t necessarily need them. They can be effective for persons with higher self-esteem and persons whose needs are already met.

Therefore, positive affirmations may work for athletes since they are likely already high performing. The affirmations are confirming their existing reality rather than trying to convince them of something they don’t believe.

Affirmations can work if focused on effort rather than competence. 

Another study looked at the effect of affirmations on children with negative beliefs regarding their math abilities.

Titled, Effort Self-Talk Benefits the Mathematics Performance of Children With Negative Competence Beliefs, the study compared affirmations focused on ability, “I am very good at this!” with affirmations focused on effort, “I will do my very best!”. The study concluded:

“…effort self-talk benefited the performance of children holding negative competence beliefs: It severed the association between negative competence beliefs and poor performance. By internally asserting that they will deliver effort, children with negative competence beliefs can optimize their achievement in school.

This study confirms the idea that trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe is not effective.

Rather than affirming a false reality, it is far more effective to affirm the fact that you will give the task your best effort.

This is a simple distinction between what you can control and what you cannot control.

We can control the amount of effort we put into a task, but we can’t immediately control how we think and feel about a task.

A Better Way to Cope with Negative Thoughts 

Although affirmations can work, they only seem to work in particular situations. In my work as an addiction counselor, I don’t use positive affirmations because they are generally ineffective.

Persons suffering from addiction are often using a substance or behavior to cope with underlying pain or unmet needs. As seen in the literature, using positive affirmations to cope with these underlying issues often backfires.

Instead of using affirmations, there is a better way to deal with difficult thoughts and painful emotions.

If affirmations have not been working for you, it might be helpful to consider trying a strategy called acceptance and defusion.

Acceptance and defusion techniques come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic approach supported by over 330 clinical trials.

As described in my previous article on How to Stop Living in Your Head, you can use the following to more effectively cope with unhelpful forms of worry:

  1. Accept what you can’t control
  2. Step back from your thoughts
  3. Focus on the present moment
  4. Remove limiting self-definitions
  5. Live by your core values
  6. Take action toward what matters

Take a look at the full article if you are interested in exploring each of these areas in-depth, in addition to learning some practical exercises designed to gain a healthy perspective.

Summary

Positive affirmations don’t work for those trying to escape from negative thoughts or painful emotions. In fact, affirmations can often make the situation worse by reminding an individual they are not living up to the affirmation.

Like trying to change someone else’s mind by arguing with them, we can’t change our own that way either. Insisting we are happy and successful does not make us feel more happy or successful if we don’t already feel that way.

Affirmations can work to improve mood and performance among individuals who are already high functioning, such as athletes.

Specific types of affirmations can also work, including affirming your existing values or affirming the fact that you will give your best effort.

In general, a more effective approach to dealing with negative thoughts or difficult emotions includes accepting what you can’t control and taking a step back from your thoughts, as described in detail in my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head.

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Want to Try Online Counseling?

Here are a few options worth checking out:

BetterHelp.com is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

It’s almost like having a counselor in your pocket, since you can text, voice-message, or set up video calls whenever you need support. 

For persons struggling with anxious thoughts, depressed moods, low self-esteem, low motivation, or loneliness, check out Better Help here.

Online-therapy.com also offers support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Click here to learn more about their program based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

If you are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here. Although prices are generally higher on this directory, many of the practitioners accept insurance. 

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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10 Comments

    • Steve Rose

      Thanks for checking it out!

      Reply
      • Austin Kuzyk

        I found this very helpful. I went through some dark times and looked to personal development instead of therapy or a psychologist for help. I was 19 with not too much education and thought that was going to “fix” me. I heard so many personal development gurus talking about affirmations so I started doing them – all the time. It became incessant and turned into a mental habit which I did constantly. The thoughts became intrusive and it distracted me from the important things in my life. Since being in therapy for the last year, and also learning about better ways of thinking and learning things through evidence based things, it has been helping me a lot. Really appreciate you sharing this information.

        Reply
  1. hitandrun1964

    Why does anyone even need them? I never get that part.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      According to the literature, technically no one actually “needs” them, since they don’t help actually fulfill any real underlying needs. People who are seeking out positive affirmation techniques seem to be trying to increase self-esteem, boost mood, or change thoughts, emotions, or behavior, despite it not necessarily being effective.

      Reply
      • Steve Rose

        Can you share the reasons why you believe this?

        Reply
  2. Alisa

    When was this written?

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      I wrote this in 2020. If you’re looking to cite the original studies, you can click on the hyperlinks to find their source.

      Reply
  3. Tina

    I like this article. It’s detailed so no guessing games. I recently discovered 2 things. 1. Some of us have a dialog in our head that never shuts up and is always critical (subconscious). 2. Affirmations. I never really liked affirmations. I thought it was silly. Then I fell in love. But here comes the subconscious with all the “what if’s”. So in the car driving alone one day, my mind tells me to pull over, apply makeup (an endless critique). I yelled “ENOUGH” then all the way to his house I say “I am beautiful, I am worthy, I am ….” It worked because as long as you’re busy talking, your subconscious can’t. I have ADHD so singing doesn’t work, every paragraph has me wanting to text a friend “hey remember when we thought we were going to be ninjas when we grew up, haha I just heard a karate kid song”. One song will have someone like me on an emotional rollercoaster of memories. I stick to Bach (anything without words). For criticism of the subconscious, affirmations will stop the self hate. Not permanently, but long enough to leave the house without believing you’re ugly, long enough without believing you need to pull over to apply makeup. If your feelings are hurt, it’s probably the conscious mind and affirmations in my opinion do absolutely nothing for the conscious mind. It only works to shut up the subconscious. Thats my opinion based on my experience.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Hi Tina,
      Thank you for these kind words! I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the article. It looks like you’ve been able to find a strategy that is a useful short-term distraction, allowing you to function better in these types of situations. It seems to be serving as more of a distraction method than how affirmations are typically used. Glad to see this has given you some relief. I’m curious to know if you’ve tried other approaches like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as a way to manage these thoughts in the longer term. If you’re interested, there is a great book on the topic called, The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris: https://www.amazon.com/Confidence-Gap-Guide-Overcoming-Self-Doubt/dp/1590309235. Perhaps the ADHD would complicate these standard approaches, but I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Alisa Cancel reply