“You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”
Probably, it is no accident that, as North American culture has grown less religious that affirmations have become increasingly popular. Today, affirmations have become a form of secular prayer, used by New Agers, athletes, and many religious groups – yet the only evidence that they work is anecdotal.
Affirmations are verbal or written statements whose repetition is believed to help people accomplish their goals. A classic example is Émile Coué’s “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better,” but there must be millions in use, some of them long and specific.
So far as I know, no one has traced the history of affirmations. However, I suspected they have multiple sources. Besides the secularization of society, they may also reflect the rise of the middle class, and a standard of living that gives people the illusion of having far more control over their lives than they actually do, so the idea that a magical chant can help them influence the workings of society or the universe actually seems plausible to large numbers of people. Perhaps, too, affirmations are a kind of watered-down form of behavioral theory.
But, whatever their origins, affirmations were first popularized by early business writers such as Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale in the 1930s and 1940s. They received a boost in the New Age belief structures that emerged in the aftermath of the counterculture of the 1960s, spreading until, today, most North Americans must have tried them at least once for everything from quitting smoking to getting a job promotion.
My own experiments with affirmations came while I was a long-distance racer in my teens. Encouraged by coaches and some older runners, I did my best to make them part of my training regime for about six months. They had no noticeable effect on my speed or times, or on my efforts to train regularly, but they did some use on focusing my attention on a simple, immediate goal.
For example, during one Chandler Memorial race from West Vancouver to Kitsilano, I was determined to beat a rival from Burnaby with the last name Reid. As the runners snaked over the narrow sidewalk on the Lions Gate Bridge, he was ahead of me, but I could do little to pass him. However, as I wound through Stanley Park, I began thinking over and over, “I fly, Reid dies.” By the time I had left the park, I had passed him, and repeating the simply rhyme helped me maintain the steady pace I needed to pull far ahead and finish the race.
For more complex, more abstract goals, however, I never saw any evidence that affirmations helped any more than simple determination.
Searching the web suggests more or less what I concluded independently. There’s no shortage of testimonies to the power of affirmations, nor of cheery assumptions that they can improve any aspect of your life (and that, if they don’t, you must be using them incorrectly).
But scientific evidence? If many attempts to study affirmations have been done, most of them have apparently never found their way on to the web. Possibly, researchers are embarrassed to investigate such a central part of pop culture, or wary of the unwelcome attention from true believers they might receive.
Such studies that exist give little reason to believe in them. One study mentioned briefly online suggests that affirmations can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse. The news item is to brief to give any detail, but I suspect that when the gap between reality and the goal is too great, repeating the affirmation makes the discrepancy harder to ignore.
Otherwise, hard evidence is practically non-existent. Probably the closest to any study of affirmations are the various studies of prayers. At best, these studies suggest that praying may temporarily improve a person’s mood. No correlation between prayer and any external effect such as healing or influencing events has ever been found, aside from one poorly designed experiment that was quickly discredited – although it continues to be cited by those who wish to believe in the power of prayer.
Not that this lack of evidence is likely to convince those who have made affirmations part of their daily routine. As Garry Trudeau, the writer of Doonesbury, once said, the beauty of pseudo-science is that you can always find an explanation why a belief doesn’t work. Affirmations are part of the superstitions of our times, and few people care to question them. Instead, if affirmations fail them, they will decide they need to try harder, or that something else went wrong, and continue with their belief systems unchallenged.