The science behind positive self-talk

The science behind positive self-talk

Blame the positive psychology movement for the fact that adults now spend inordinate amounts of time pinning, re-gramming and tattooing pithy memes.

But trite phrases such as dream it, do it are less helpful than they sound – especially when it comes to the major life changes that often anchor new year resolutions.

“A new year brings a sense of optimism, and with it an opportunity to start again more successfully. It is an exciting time…for a while, anyway,” says Blake Beattie, author of Bullseye – the Ultimate Guide to Achieving Your Goals, and the founder of international Pay it Forward Day.

“Fast forward to the end of January. Most people’s goals have fallen by the wayside. Why? Because time just seems to speed by; other commitments and responsibilities get in the way and old routines and patterns surface, rendering the changes we wanted to make ineffective.”

“Positive self-talk can improve everything from productivity to sporting performance”

According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only eight percent of people fulfil their new year resolutions. Yet we’re actually designed to want change. What gives?

The science of self-talk

Looking at yourself in the eye in front of the mirror (or looking inward to your mind’s eye) and repeating positive affirmations is a common ploy among self-improvers.

“Positive self-talk helps people to achieve good results in many areas, including completing simple and complex tasks, improving productivity, winning sporting events and boosting recovery and rehabilitation,” says psychologist Yuliya Richard.

“Individuals who can tell themselves ‘Yes, it is really uncomfortable, but I can do it; it might be really hard and usually I run away from such situations, but this time I will give it a go’, are more likely to take risks and overcome fears.”

Well-constructed affirmations work on multiple levels, says psychologist Lana Hall.

“Firstly, it means that you’re more likely to act in ways that bring you to your goal, because you’re regularly reminding yourself of its importance and so more likely to keep focused and motivated,” she says.

“Secondly, it helps you to be alert to opportunities that might help you reach your desired state. And lastly, affirmations can start to help you change your sense of self, your identity, to fit with your affirmation. This is a really key part of the change: believing that you are the type of person who can reach your goal. This is why a lot of resolutions fail: you say you’ll exercise regularly but if your sense of self is threatened by your goal, you won’t follow through.

“Tapping into your sense of identity is the scientific reason why affirmations are meant to be said in the present tense, as though you are already there.”

All these elements comprise what’s known as ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency to accept information that fits with what we already believe and reject contradictory data.

“Every time you recite an affirmation, you’re confirming your belief, and so the affirmation makes it easier to see evidence that supports the affirmation, and harder to see the evidence against the affirmation,” says Hall.

An inauthentic affirmation can also backfire.

“If you don’t at least partially believe an affirmation is true already, then it won’t help you,” says Hall. “In fact, if you don’t believe the affirmation at all (no matter how much you’d like to believe it), then repeating the affirmation will actually take you further from your goal. This is because when you repeat the affirmation, your mind responds by bringing up all the reasons the statement isn’t true. This is worse than if you’d never said the affirmation at all, because your mind will likely go on along its train of disconfirmation for much longer than you say the affirmation.

“Ultimately, any affirmation that you don’t really believe is true, or possible, will undermine your self-esteem, because it just reminds you of what you’re not. It will feel fake, like you’re lying to yourself.”


Writing ‘toward’ affirmations is a precursor to realising positive outcomes.

“When we affirm and focus on what truly inspires us and concentrate our affirmed thinking in the direction of our desired objects, we alter our internal world, and as a result, we view and act upon the external world differently,” says Dr John Demartini, author of The Values Factor.

“When creating your affirmations, don’t use statements such as ‘always’ or ‘never’, use simple, powerful words joined into brief phrases, use words that carry feelings of gratitude, love, inspiration or enthusiasm, and use words you are willing to say for life.”

For example, ‘I am a master reader; whatever I read, I retain’, or ‘I am a master of persistence and I do what it takes’, or ‘I do what I love and love what I do’.

Of course, affirmations can be transposed, refined and perfected over a period of time as you find the most effective mantra. Life coach Alyce Pilgrim says the more engaged you are, the more beneficial the affirmation becomes.

“To give your affirmations more punch and make them more effective, get your whole body involved,” she says. “Physiology makes up a large percentage of our psychology and how we feel. So if you are sitting down, slumped, telling yourself that you are abundant – shake things up a little. Stand up, put your shoulders back. Create a power pose that makes you feel confident and empowered. Say your affirmation out loud like you mean it.”

The millennia-old connection between thinking and becoming or behaving, as espoused by Buddha, is supported by modern science.


Adding a visual element to your affirmations serves as a ‘rehearsal’, creating a mental roadmap for your body and mind to follow.

“Research shows that your mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality, which has proved particularly useful with elite athletes,” says Hall. “When you imagine moving your arm, for example, the same parts of your brain are activated as when you actually move your arm. Similarly, seeing yourself doing well at a task is like actually practising the task.”

“Under certain conditions, mental rehearsal can be a very influential practice. We have all experienced this while watching a scary movie we’re totally immersed in – your heart beats faster, you clench your muscles, as though the events are actually happening around you.”

“Make sure you make the images as real as possible – involve all your senses if you can,” says Hall. “Visualise while relaxed and focused. See yourself completing the task as you would like to, in the first person; i.e. through your eyes, not as though watching yourself in a movie. And practise regularly.”

According to psychologist Dr Lydia Ievleva, author of Imagine: Using Mental Imagery to Reach Your Full Potential, visualisation is more powerful than verbal affirmations. Dr Ievleva recommends using both.

“The reach of mental imagery extends far beyond words, and is the major portal of your brain for transformation and quantum leaping,” she says.

In time, visualisation can change the way you think.

“Neuroplasticity is the technical term for what is also referred to as cortical remapping, or brain remapping – the capacity of your nervous system to develop new neuronal connections,” says Dr Ievleva. “Previously automatic patterns that are resistant to change can be switched off by creating newer and more adaptive patterns to override the old.

“This can only occur with mental practice that creates new neuronal pathways. Translated, this means you can rewrite your script. Whatever you imagine can become your new, more preferred repertoire to replace the old.”

Words by David Goding.

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