The Dark Side of Positive Reinforcement

Still flustered and busy, but this news tidbit was too good to pass up.

From a press release regarding a new study of Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee:

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement–but only slightly.

The psychologists suggested that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem. Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts. And, if people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, they may find negative thoughts to be especially discouraging.

Typical teacher classroom poster, from


It’s not an equivalent situation, but it’s worth thinking about.

5 Responses

  1. Nice.

    I would have suspected as much. What I’d like to know, what if the phrases were mildly positive instead of hip and happy. “I can ask interesting questions” — “I get some things right” — any effect?

    (the mellowed down praise is what I use, what I encourage. I suspect that in being more realistic, it is more believable, and more trusted.)

    What do you think?


    • I think (only as an educated guess) it’s the randomness of the messages that’s the bad part.

      That is, even a “realistic” message like “I can pass this test” repeated over and over while taking a test is psychologically self-defeating, but using it as a message once right before taking it is a more targeted effect.

  2. I think you’re right Jonathan. A student telling themselves that “I’m going to get an A on this test” isn’t going to help if it isn’t realistic, isn’t going to help.

    I, as I’m sure we all do, have students who walk into a test telling themselves “I’m going to fail this test. I always fail math tests.”

    I work with them on changing that message. We come up with phrases like, “I’ve studied for this test. I know the material.” or “Just because I may not know how to do one problem doesn’t mean I’m going to fail the whole test.” It seems to help.

    Of course, if they are focusing on these messages during the test instead of the test itself, that isn’t helpful.

  3. There was, incidentally, an article about this recently (; it’s an interesting finding, I think. I’m curious about how it will affect the style of education.

  4. Interesting research.

    I’ve made a cd for helping people combat test anxiety, in which I have them visualize studying and taking a test, and enjoying it. It’s not professional quality yet. I’d like to improve it, and make it available online.

    When you’re working with the subconscious, it’s important to keep messages stated in the positive. “I won’t fail” isn’t a good message, because your subconscious hears ‘fail’ and doesn’t notice ‘won’t’. Just like dogs: ‘Don’t jump’ is not very useful.

    I used the work of Margo Adair’s book Working Inside Out: Tools for Change when I created the script.

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