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According to a recent study published in Emotion, students who evaluated their performance on an exam as higher than it actually was – a form of undeserved self-praise – later felt dejected and depressed.

According to Chi-Yue Chiu, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore:

    “Distress following excessive self-praise is likely to occur when a person’s inadequacy is exposed, and because inaccurate self-assessments can prevent self-improvement.”

Researchers discovered this effect in students from both the U.S. and Hong Kong, suggesting that it may be cross-cultural. However, they found that students from Hong Kong tended to be more humble in their self evaluations overall, which was consistent with previous research supporting the trend of Asian cultures being more modest than Western cultures.

This finding shouldn’t be that shocking to readers of The Emotion Machine. I have long advocated that we take an honest and reasonable approach to how we view ourselves.

I like positive psychology and I think it offers many useful theories and practices for how we can benefit our lives. But this shouldn’t be confused with the “positive thinking movement.” The former is a scientific discipline, while the latter is a heavily commercialized and distorted industry with little scientific backing.

I’ve experienced the heartache of believing things like The Law of Attraction and The Secret first hand, and I’ve later warned about these dangerous trends in personal development – which often emphasize the importance of excessive self-praise and over-confidence, even when it is irrational and potentially very harmful.

When the self-help “guru” James Arthur Ray had participants go on a physically demanding “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that consisted of several days of fasting, and then spending hours locked in a sweat lodge, several people needed to be hospitalized after – and some even died. Ray believed that through excessive confidence and self-belief, they could overcome any physical limitations. His excessive confidence was wrong, and it had dire consequences for those who fell prey to it.

Of course, some level of self-praise and confidence is essential to our evolution. Because without any confidence, we can never be motivated to take the risks required to successfully adapt to our environment.

If a fish gets thrown into a new pond, but it is too fearful and avoiding of it’s surroundings, it will have greater difficulty finding food to survive. But if it has the confidence to explore its new territory and take calculated risks, it will often have a greater probability of discovering new means of survival, without being crippled by fear.

Self-praise is one of the biggest ways humans can build a more confident demeanor and be more motivated to take action, but it needs to be balanced.

Sports psychologists have demonstrated how athletes can use positive self-talk to improve their performance. But clearly overestimating our abilities can at times lead to some destructive outcomes.

Another study showed how overly optimistic people are susceptible to underestimating the risks that bad things will happen to them, such as getting cancer or getting into a bad car accident. This optimistic attitude can motivate people toward more reckless behaviors because they mis-attribute the risks of their actions.

Again, it’s about balance. Self-praise and confidence are good, but only when they are deserved and when they are grounded in reality. Trying to fool ourselves into thinking we are more than we are can only backfire in the end.


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